1953Director: Max Ophüls
Cast: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica
he story begins as mere cleverness: in turn-of-the-century Paris, the wife (Danielle Darrieux) of a general (Charles Boyer) sells her earrings to pay off a gambling debt, and pretends she lost them at the opera. The pawnbroker notifies the general, who buys them back but doesn’t seem to mind so much, even though they were his marriage gift to his wife, since he gives them to his mistress—who sells them off to pay back her own debts, to another pawnbroker who sells them to an Italian diplomat (Vittorio De Sica) who falls in love with the wife of the general, and decides to make her the gift of her own earrings. The general begins to mind. It all seems very schematic.
Just about everything about Max Ophüls’ eventual masterpiece, Madame de… (or as the title translated into English puts it, The Earrings of Madame de…), originally released in 1953, is transparently artificial: the contrived plot, the simulacra sets, Ophüls’ famous tracking shots that glide endlessly like a third party on ice, and above all, the characters’ lives themselves. Jealousy, betrayal, and humiliation lie just below the surface of Madame de…—but the surface itself is pure elegance. It’s the same formula of Ernst Lubitsch’s cosmopolitan comedies: wit is a gloss over vulnerability, and when the characters try to outwit each other, they’re trying to outwit themselves as well. “Our marriage is only superficially superficial,” the general notes correctly when trying to sit his wife down for a serious talk about her improprieties, which are exerting a larger toll than either would like to accommodate, but he may as well add that the only joy they have is superficial as well.
As a character notes at the end of Ophüls’ Le Plaisir, “But, my friend, happiness is not a joyful thing,” and Madame de… adds that joy is not necessarily a happy thing, either, even as it gives into occasional bursts of superficial bliss: pieces of a ripped-up letter thrown out of a train dissolve into a flurry of snow at one point, and at another (in a sequence cribbed from his Letter from an Unknown Woman), the diplomat and the Madame dance late into the night even as the band packs up to go to bed. “His elegant characters lack nothing and lose everything,” Andrew Sarris once wrote about Ophüls. “There is no escape from the trap of time,” which Sarris equated with Ophüls’ endless shots. But in a wonderfully contrived montage well worthy of Lubitsch, Ophüls sums up the diplomat and the Madame’s early romance in a sequence that willfully suspends time even as it emphasizes its limits: dissolving from dance to dance, Ophüls keeps the lovers in motion together as he whispers to her, “How can I stand another week before I see you again,” to “How can I stand another three days?” to, finally, “How can I stand another 24 hours?”
Still, the question arises as to just who the hell these people are beneath the froth. Ophüls directed Darrieux to act “like a void” (not entirely unlike Robert Bresson’s revolutionary work with non-actors at around the same time), and her possibly-conscious performance marks the ultimate of impenetrable Ophülsian women awakened only by some vague feeling of obligation to reciprocate a man’s love. As for the general and the diplomat, they’re nearly interchangeable, both rich and suave and witty, though perhaps the Italian is smoother. In 19th century novelistic tradition, everyone is trapped by the proprieties and artifice of high-class living, and nobody has any individual identity; it turns out that the Madame, whose last name isn’t even disclosed to the viewer (through another series of self-conscious contrivances), is capable only of telling lies. It’s only the relations with each other that matter, even to themselves. Ophüls, from the first shot on, repeatedly shows his characters through various frames, as if to emphasize that their lives are little more than pretty pictures—they may be looking at themselves in a mirror, but they’re certainly not about to face themselves as well.
All this framing may recall similar devices in the films of Douglas Sirk, who liked to use doorways and windows and mirrors to put his characters’ preposterous emotions in perspective, and to emphasize the superficiality of their two-dimensional lives. Like Lubitsch, Sirk marks out the absurdity of the overblown emotions that dominate people trapped in social proprieties, while never denying their devastating influence; Ophüls, however, is a slightly different German director, more interested in mocking the proprieties than the emotions, and in Madame de… he leaves it to the earrings to carry the weight of each characters’ hidden feelings that they’re unable to express in their superficial superficiality. Gradually, the meaning of the earrings comes to signify something horrible to each of the characters: a reminder of the love the general supposedly once had for his wife, proof of the Madame’s lies, and even her of own beauty, easily transferred among men. Of course, the very fact that a pair of earrings symbolize their emotions is itself a subtle symbol of their materialist mindset; and the fact that the jewelry keeps getting sold to pay off debts is a hint of the approaching downfall of the aristocracy in a world maintained by lies.
For all of its 19th century tradition, Madame de… ultimately takes a defiantly modernist perspective, withholding its characters’ inner thoughts and feelings from us at every step. The first shot is seen in the first-person, allowing us to see the Madame only as she sees the world (she’s taking an inventory of all her jewels and expensive clothing), and the last shot tracks down from the statue of an icon of Mary, with that same vacant power over men as Madame de… herself, to the earrings, which are what really matter in the end anyway. Along the way there are points where Ophüls puts on the full wrung-out orchestra music to give us his characters’ emotions for them, and then, Godard-like, thinks better of it and cuts it out mid-shot. It’s not until the quick and devastating ending that the characters get sick of the games and decide to seek some transparency, at the expense of their own ridiculousness (and lives), and it becomes clear that the film has probably been a masterpiece all along. There are points where you may need to project your own emotions, but the movie pays them back amply; in any case, the same thing can be said about Madame de… that can be said about any of those masterpieces by unclassifiable masters like Lubitsch, Sirk, and Ophüls: they don’t make them like this anymore, but then, they almost certainly never did.
Madame de… is currently touring the United States, and will be released on DVD at the end of the year.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-04-03
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