Friday, March 16, 2007

Madame de . . . / (The Earrings of Madame de . . . ) - Movie Review

Madame de... / (The Earrings of Madame de . . . ) (1953)

Max Ophüls, for some ungodly reason has rarely received the international fame and recognition of a Hitchcock, Ford or even Welles. Certainly his claim to being one of the great auteurs of the twentieth century is on par with all three giants. He shares a love of fluid tracking shots with Hitchcock, a solid sense of composition and tight narrative flow akin to Ford. And like Welles, his deliriously cinematic oeuvre runs to a relatively low output of films – each one as memorable as the chubby boy geniuses.

For the lucky cinemagoers in the tri-state area, his 1953 masterpiece, “Madame de . . .” has been revived at Film Forum in a lovely new print courtesy of Janus Films. The original title is “Madame de . . .” and for the purposes of consistency, we are sticking with that one! (The English title seems far too concerned with a plot device and not the heart of the film.) “Madame de . . .” is set in the demimondaine realm of the Parisian aristocracy. We meet Madame de . . . (her full name is never revealed in one of the films many clever bits) as she rummages through her expansive wardrobe searching for a pair of earrings that she has decided to sell in order to help chisel away at her substantial debt. A debt that she obviously owes to hundreds of furriers, milliners and dressmakers throughout the finer neighborhoods of Paris. Seriously kids, this bitch can shop with the best of them.

“Madame de . . . " is a movielovers dream for various reasons. First, its sumptuous production values that provide a view into a lost world of manners and civility that frame the social canvas for this elegant comedy of errors. The Madame and her husband, the General exist in an echelon of Paris that is reserved for impeccable manners, wit and wordplay that belie their very carnal desires simmering underneath. Wherein today’s cinema we might encounter a cheating spouse and cuckolded husband, in Ophüls’ world, sex is reduced to a mutual understanding between consenting adults that seems at first to be less important than issues of mutual respect, trust and keeping up appearances.

Flirting is encouraged, affairs are tolerated, but falling in love and lying about it are cause for dueling. It is a world where affairs of the flesh are less volatile than affairs of the heart. Once Madame de has entered willingly into her ‘folie a deux’ with a dashing diplomat, her fate is sealed. Their erotically charged dance of love is evocated in a series of waltzes from various parties and bal masqués that blur into one deliciously ripe setpiece filled with lust, admiration and comic asides. It is a justifiably famous sequence made more so by the caliber of its players.

As Madame de, the legendary Danielle Darrieux shimmers in her Belle Époque finery. At first, petulant and incorrigibly haughty, she seems incapable of betraying anything besides her wardrobe. For here is a woman who drifts along on the caprices of fashion, without ever bothering to observe the mysteries that lie underneath. As the game of love proceeds to its inevitably complicated finale – she will learn that the costs of betraying her husband, her lover and worst of all, her own soul will leave her morally bankrupt.

The eternally debonair Charles Boyer is simply superb as le General. His military bearing and training carry him through the routine ordeals of such an oft played courting ritual, but his unwavering sense of honor prevent him from admitting defeat in the face of his wife’s genuine shift in affections. Not that the General is beyond reproach. We witness his frightfully formal and altogether polite discarding of a mistress who has fallen out of favor early in the film. Her dismissal is all the more ripe with irony since the General has decided to bestow a parting gift on the teary eyed tramp, the earrings that his wife has sold in order to maintain her lavish lifestyle. How the earrings will return into his wife’s possession and their ultimate fate we leave up to the viewer to witness.

The Baron is portrayed by one of cinema’s other great directors. The fact that Vittorio De Sica helmed such masterpieces as: Shoeshine”, “Bicycle Thieves”, “Umberto D. and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis; along with slightly lesser but equally memorable films like: Miracle in Milan”, “Indiscretion of an American Wife”, “Two Women”, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Marriage, Italian Style – and was able to act as well as he does in “Madame de . . .” seems an obscenely rich overabundance of talent. His Baron is more than the catalyst for the lead couples’ marital meltdown. Gallant, dashing and passionately devoted to his new found inamorata, he in many ways has the most difficult role to eschew. Typically lovestruck dupe is hardly the stuff of great performances. Which makes De Sica’s charming and effortless turn all the more appreciable.

Ophüls’ attention to detail rivals Von Stroheim’s notorious obsessive compulsiveness. As elegant, soignée and ephemeral as the cinematic playground of “Madame de . . .” might seem, the consistency of design and largesse of visual riches involves us completely. Every frame seems suitable for framing. But this is not merely a pretty painting come to life. While some fools have accused Ophüls of swimming in his operatic camera movements, they fail to see that nothing escapes his eye. The physical world of Madame de is as important as her psychological one.

“Madame de . . . “ is a portrait of three adults who act nobly throughout an ignoble scandal. While the earrings of the English title act as a metaphor for love – lost and found, it is merely the conduit and not the heart of the movie. The heart lies within Ophüls enchanted lens. In the textures, the atmosphere, the music and the movement of his unstoppable camera. He sweeps the audience away into a dreamlike state, where we begin to feel the same intoxication of love that overwhelms Madame de, in one of her many fainting spells.

Rarely has a film been met with such universal acclaim. Andrew Sarris names it his choice for “The Greatest Film of All Time”. His arch-nemesis Pauline Kael once called it “perfection” and “romantic, seductive, and at times, almost hypnotic”. Roger Ebert claims that “Madame de . . .” is “one of the great pleasures of the cinema”. For a true movielover, there can hardly be better reason to rejoice, than to be able to see this glorious vintage film flickering across the silver screen once more. Stop what you’re doing and go see it. Now! Bless you all!

(Endnote: One final parting thought on this masterful piece of moviemaking that bridges the all too contentious ports of art and entertainment: for all the DVDs, videos, internet movie downloading and zillion cable channels out in today’s markets, the films of Max Ophüls are still criminally overlooked. Only one, his brilliant final masterpiece “Lola Montès” is currently available on DVD. And people have the unmitigated gall to protest the war in Iraq. Here is the real crime against humanity! Write your congressman/woman and demand the release of Ophüls greatest works onto DVD today!)

Directed by Max Ophüls
Screenplay by Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls and Annette Wademant
Based on the novel by Louise de Vilmorin

Charles Boyer as Général André de . . .
Danielle Darrieux as Comtesse Louise de . . .
Vittorio De Sica as Baron Fabrizio Donati
Jean Debucourt as Monsieur Rémy
Jean Galland as Monsieur de Bernac
Mireille Perrey as La Nourrice
Paul Azaïs as Le premier cocher
Hubert Noël as Henri de Maleville
Lia Di Leo as Lola
Madeleine Barbulée as Une amie de Madame de . . .
Charles Bayard as Un convive
Jacques Beauvais as Un majordome
Gérard Buhr as Le douanier
Jean Degrave as Le clubman
Claire Duhamel as La demoiselle de compagnie
Guy Favières as Julien
Émile Genevois as Un soldat
Serge Lecointe as Jérome Rémy
Franck Maurice as Un témoin
Max Mégy as Un domestique
Daniel Mendaille as Un passant
Albert Michel Le second cocher
Robert Moor as Un diplomate
Georges Paulais as Le premier témoin du duel
Léon Pauléon as Un huissier
Colette Régis as Vendeuse de cierges
Louis Saintève as Un passant
Michel Salina as Un témoin
Germaine Stainval as L’ambassadrice
Jean Toulout as Le doyen du corps diplomatique
Roger Vincent as Le second témoin du duel
Georges Vitray as Vieux reporter
Léon Walther as L’administrateur
René Worms as Un convive

Cinematography by Christian Matras
Film Editing by Borys Lewin
Costume Design by Georges Annenkov and Rosine Delamare
Original Music by Oscar Straus and Georges Van Parys
Production Design by Jean d’Eaubonne
Makeup by Carmen Brel

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