Madame de... Review
Paris, the early twentieth century. Louise (Danielle Darrieux) sells some expensive earrings to pay off a gambling debt. Unable to tell her husband André (Charles Boyer), an army general, she pretends to have lost them in a theatre. Unfortunately for her, André finds out the truth: he buys the earrings back and gives them to his mistress, Lola (Lia di Leo), who is leaving for Constantinople. There they are bought by an Italian diplomat, Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who back in Paris meets Louise…
Max Ophuls’s reputation generally rests on the last seven films he made, in a period of seven years, in America and France, his European films from the 1930s being generally difficult to see. In 1957, he was dead, aged only fifty-four, from a heart attack. Each one of those seven films has its champions: for Andrew Sarris Madame de… (also known, more specifically, as The Earrings of Madame de…) is “the most perfect film ever made”, a quote that’s on the front of the DVD box. Favourite films on the other hand are subjective, and this film has never been my favourite of Ophuls’s works – those being Letter from an Unknown Woman followed by Le Plaisir. Having said that, there’s no doubt that Madame de… is the work of a director at the height of his powers.
Adapted from a novel by Louise de Vilmorin, Madame de… (we never hear her surname, hence the title) is a love story, if a tragic one. In Ophuls’s hands, it shows the transformative power of love – Louise matures as a result of her love for Donati, and becomes much less the frivolous trophy wife she was at the beginning of the film. It also shows its price – a price embodied in a pair of earrings. As the jewels pass from one owner to the next, Ophuls uncovers the darker emotions that lurk under the surface of this well-mannered and sophisticated Parisian high society. Danielle Darrieux gives a performance of quite some depth, backed up by strong work from Charles Boyer, a former matinee idol now in his fifties, as the rigid, honour-bound general, whose pride leads him to bring about the film’s tragic conclusion. Vittorio De Sica, as an actor rather than a director, could be a ham, especially in his older age, but he’s convincing here. Interestingly this isn’t a romance of youngsters but of middle-aged people, at least in years. Louise is meant to be younger than the two men in her life, but even so Danielle Darrieux was thirty-five when she made this film.
As ever, the elegant surface of an Ophuls film hides darker things underneath. But as ever, that elegance is supreme. Ophuls’s camera is constantly on the move, panning and tracking but always precisely right – there aren’t any shots that seem to be virtuoso for their own sake (such as the crane shot introducing the brothel in Le Plaisir). Ophuls began his film career just after the silent era had ended, though given his visual abilities he would no doubt have thrived then. But it’s his use of sound I’m going to mention here, particularly in the climactic duel, where we see very little – what we hear (or don’t hear, to hint without spoiling it) tells us all we need to know.
Madame de… was Ophuls’s penultimate film, and his last in black and white and Academy Ratio. His next film was a large-scale production, in colour and the then-new format of CinemaScope. With Ophulsian circularity, I come back to Lola Montès, which is where I began this series of reviews.
Madame de… is released by Second Sight on a dual-layered disc, as part of its four-film Max Ophuls Collection. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.
Again, this is a very good transfer of a black-and-white film in 4:3, well detailed and showing all the shades of grey in Christian Matras’s camerawork. There’s some minor dirt and print damage but no more than, and certainly less than, you would expect on a film that’s over fifty years old. The same goes for the mono soundtrack: well recorded and balanced and as good as you would expect. The dialogue is in French; the English subtitles in an easily readable white font, and fixed.
There are two extras on this disc. First off is an interview with novelist and film director Alain Jessua (25:46), who began his career as an assistant director, first for Jacques Becker on Casque d’Or then for Ophuls on Madame de… and Lola Montès. The result holds your interest, and a portrait emerges of a man Jessua clearly has great personal fondness for and regards as a mentor.
The other extra is a video essay (17:26) is along similar lines to that on the DVD for Letter from an Unknown Woman. Gallagher breaks down the key scene where Louise and Donati meet, analysing Ophuls’s use of perspective and the fact that Ophuls the entire scene in just four shots. As ever, you’ll no doubt learn something about this film you didn’t know before.
Madame de… is the last, chronologically, of the four Ophuls films Second Sight have released in their Collection. When you consider that previous to these DVDs, the only Ophuls DVD in the USA and the UK was Fox Lorber’s poor edition of Lola Montès, these discs are very good indeed, with the only real shortcoming being the lack of subtitles on the two English-language DVDs. The extras have without exception been well chosen, and it would be churlish to ask for more. Let’s hope that Second Sight release some more Ophuls: the obvious remaining ones are Caught (which Second Sight released on VHS), La Ronde (which the BFI released on VHS – are they working on a DVD release?) and the 2002 restoration of Lola Montès. I would also like a chance to see Ophuls’s rare first Hollywood film, The Exile, not to mention some of his European works, and maybe they could bring Todd Haynes and Tag Gallagher back to contribute to them. But in the meantime, we have four key films, so let’s enjoy them.