A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Madame de... (Max Ophuls, 1953)

The word "tone" is much bandied about by critics, myself included. We speak of a film as being "inconsistent in tone" or its "melancholy,  despairing tone" or its "shifts in tone." But ask us -- or, anyway, me -- what we mean by the term, and you may get a lot of stammering and hesitation. Even my old copy of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics falls back on calling it "an intangible quality ... like a mood in a human being." So when I say that Madame de... is a masterwork in its manipulation of tone, you have to take that observation as a kind of awestruck, slightly inarticulate response to a film that begins in farce and ends in tragedy. The American title of the film was The Earrings of Madame de..., but to my mind that puts the emphasis on what is, in effect, merely a MacGuffin. The earrings were given to Countess Louise de... (Danielle Darrieux) by her husband, General André de... (Charles Boyer), on their wedding day. (Their full surname is coyly hidden throughout the film: A sound blots out the latter part of the name when it is spoken, and it is hidden by a flower when it appears on a place card at a banquet. The effect is rather like a newspaper gossip column trying to avoid a libel suit when reporting a scandal among the aristocracy.) The scandal is set in motion when Louise, a flirtatious woman with many admirers, decides to sell the earrings to pay off the debts she wants to hide from André. Their marriage has obviously come to a pause: Though they remain affectionate with each other, they have separate bedrooms and at night they talk to each other through doors that open on a connecting room. Louise takes the earrings to the jeweler (Jean Debucourt) from whom André originally purchased them. But when she tries to persuade André that she lost them at the opera and the "theft" is reported in the newspapers, the jeweler tries to sell them back to the general. To put an end to the business, André pays for them, then presents them to his mistress, Lola (Lia Di Leo), as a parting gift: Their affair over, she is leaving for Constantinople. There, Lola gambles them away, but they are bought by an Italian diplomat, Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who is on his way to a posting in Paris. And of course Donati meets Louise, they fall in love, and he presents the earrings to her as a gift. Recognizing them, she has no recourse but to hide them, but they will resurface with fatal results. How Max Ophuls gradually shades this plot from a situation suited to a Feydeau farce into a poignant conclusion is a part of the film's magic. It depends to a great extent on the superb performances of Darrieux, Boyer, and De Sica, but also on Ophuls's typically restless camera, handled -- as in Ophuls's La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), and Lola Montès (1955) -- by cinematographer Christian Matras, as it explores Jean d'Eaubonne's elegant fin de siècle sets. Much depends, too, on the film editor, Borys Lewin, who helps Ophuls accomplish one of the movies' great tours de force, following Louise and Donati as they dance what appears to be an extended waltz but gradually shows itself to be several waltzes taking place over the period of time in which they fall in love. It's a cinematic showpiece, but it's fully integrated into what has to be one of the great movies.