Friday, December 10, 2010

Max Ophuls | Madame de... (The Earrings of Madame de...)

by Douglas Messerli

Marcel Achard, Max Ophuls, and Wademant (writers), based on the novel Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin, Max Ophuls (director) Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…) / 1953

The Comtesse Louise de… is represented in the first moments of Max Ophuls' Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…) by only her hand and arm—a fragmented and disembodied being—at home with the objects which she is apparently reviewing, the boxes of jewels and her closets of elaborate gowns and furs. We soon discover that she is choosing from among these precious objects something to sell—and as her entire body slowly comes into perspective, we comprehend that she is attempting to raise money to pay outstanding debts.

She is, so Ophuls tells us, a pampered and frivolous woman, who might have continued her life in such isolated luxury had she not selected to sell a pair of diamond earrings, given to her by her husband. Among her cherished gems and clothes, the earrings are, apparently, her least favorite thing—also an indication, perhaps, of her position regarding her husband. Apparently, she has had neither the courage nor the trust to tell him of her financial situation, even though it soon becomes clear that he would have quickly resolved the problem and overlooked her financial indiscretions.

Once we have glimpsed Louise we see the beautiful woman so attached to these things. Indeed, throughout the film, Ophuls shows off Danielle Darrieux’s beauty through her exquisite gowns and jewels in the manner almost reminiscent of today’s “fashion” films such as the recently issued The Duchess (2008). Ophuls has been neglected, in part, precisely because of the elegance of his films; particularly in 1950s atmosphere of abstract expressionism and discordant 12-tone music, Ophuls’s highly narratively framed histories of sexual indiscretion and innuendo seemed old-fashioned and out of place. Even in his otherwise positive review of this film, Roger Ebert summarizes one standard view of Ophuls world: The Earrings of Madame de… …is one of the most mannered and contrived love movies ever filmed.” As the reader of my essays on film will recall, I am a great admirer of theatrical filmmaking. But I would argue that, accept for the Macguffin, the reappearing earrings, the love story Ophuls tells, in terms of the great romances of fiction, is not nearly so contrived and mannered as it may seem.

One must also recall, of course, that any focus on women in 1953 might have been seen, in the testosterone-smoke-filled rooms of journalism, as simply uninteresting. Critic Molly Haskell summarizes that position best in Richard Roud’s comments: “What are Ophuls' subjects? The simplest answer is: women. More specifically, women in love. Most often, women who are unhappily in love, or to whom love brings misfortune of one kind or another.”

Obviously things have changed some since those evaluations, and Ophuls' work, thanks to intelligent analyses by critics such as Andrew Sarris, his wife, Molly Haskell, and Pauline Kael, The Earrings of Madame de… is now recognized as a masterwork, even though, as Haskell notes, it “never seems to attain the universal accolade of ‘greatness,’ automatically granted to movies like The Godfather or Citizen Kane.”

Ophuls clearly loved Louise de Vilmorin’s 1951 novel because of the recurring theme of the earrings. It provided him with a structure against which the “real” story, the love between Madame de… and Baron Fabrizio Donati (handsomely played by film director Vittorio De Sica) develops. But in order to even comprehend this structural device, we need to attend not only to the seemingly isolated and pampered world of Louise, but the society of the male characters, represented in an almost dichotomous manner by Louise’s husband, Général André de… (Charles Boyer), a military figure who seems to have stepped right out of a book by Ophuls’s favorite writer Arthur Schnitzler, and the romantically-inclined ambassador Baron.

Proud, loyal, and outwardly loving of his wife, André is, nonetheless, a man of action. Although he appears to easily forgive his wife’s indiscretions, he can do so only because he believes all women inferior to rational beings. They are to be petted and forgiven, never openly chastised. Like Louise’s jewelry and furs, they are not worthy of the passion of anger; they are, rather, possessions, like a military decoration one wears on one’s lapel. It is strange that, although most critics make a great fuss about Louise’s relationship (apparently a love affair that is never sexually consummated) with the Baron, they speak little of André’s mistress, Lola (described in de Vilmorin’s original book simply as “a Spanish lady”). In the French society of the day (perhaps still today) men are expected to have mistresses’, but women are to be shamed by behaving similarly.

If Louise is insensitive about her husband’s expensive gift of the earrings, so too is he to his wife—once he has repurchased them from the jeweler to whom Louise has sold them—by offering them up as a parting present to his mistress. Moreover, Ophuls’ revealing scene of Louise’s and the Général’s living arrangements, each bedded in adjoining rooms into which they shout their bed-time messages, demonstrates that, although André may be a man of valor, he is most definitely not a man of passion. As we discover later in the film, he does not even believe in emotions: “Unhappiness,” he declares, “is an invented thing.”

Is it any wonder then that all of Louise’s friends, the society world into which she is cocooned, wish her a better companion: the Baron Fabrizio Donati, a man whose life is devoted to social skills. Ophuls literally whirls the couple into a relationship as he employs Strauss’s dizzying waltzes as the modus operandi of their romance. Warned never to hope—the Madame is known for leaving all of her hopeful suitors in the lurch—the Baron insinuates himself into Louise’s world less as a male intruder than as an expert thief of the heart.

How different is Louise’s reaction to his gift of the same diamond earrings compared with the gift from her husband. Now, it appears, the earrings—which he has purchased in Constantinople, where Lola has given them up to pay a gambling debt—are among Louise’s most cherished things; she sees them with different eyes.

Pretending to rediscover them in the confines of one of her gloves, Louise proudly wears the earrings to a ball, only to have them snatched away again, this time by her husband, who recognizes in his wife’s treasuring of them, how deeply she has fallen for the Baron. His insistence that she give them up to her baby-bearing niece helps us to realize just how out-of-touch the Madame is with everyday life. Tormented in the loss of her jewels, Louise bends briefly to coddle the new baby as she breaks into tears. But the tears, quite clearly, have nothing to do with the child, but with the loss of her baubles. For Louise is herself still a child, and will never be able to share the fulfillment of motherhood and adult love.

The Baron may be an expert romancer, but he is, after all, still a diplomat, and with Louise’s various indiscretions—her white lies to him, her husband, and even to herself—he has little choice but to break off their relationship. Suddenly the object of so much love and attention is utterly abandoned, without even an escape from the life she was destined to live out. In the beginning of the film Louise declares that she wishes her mother were still living to help her in her decisions. Now she is left only with La Nourrice, her loving and protective nursemaid who would draw her into a darker and even more isolated world of tarot and magic. The violence and anger, lurking just below the surface of André’s seemingly calm demeanor, explodes as he challenges the Baron to a duel—a duel which says nothing of his wife, but is superficially based on the Baron’s opposition to the military.

Against love and diplomacy violence often wins out. Louise, attempting to halt the duel, remains on the periphery of the action—outside of history and event—as she has been all her life, unable to catch her breath. For one of the first times in her existence, her fainting spell is real, as she suffers what most of Ophuls’ heroines ultimately suffer, a heart-attack, a breaking of the heart!

Los Angeles, September 24, 2008
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (October 2008).

Copyright (c) 2008 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

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