Saturday 31 October 2009

Madame de... (1953)

Director: Max Ophüls
Stars: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio de Sica
Released in the US as The Earrings of Madame de..., to emphasise the fact that it's the earrings that are the important thing, that isn't strictly true. Madame de... or Comtesse Louise de..., her full name withheld in the style of 19th century European literature, is what's important and the earrings are simply the MacGuffin that drives her story forward. As the introduction tells us, 'probably nothing would have happened had it not been for those jewels.' These earrings have little diamond hearts and were given to Madame de... as a wedding present from her husband, Général André de..., so they have sentimental value as well as financial value.

The long opening shot with many complex camera movements, as is typical for filmmaker Max Ophüls, begins with these earrings and then wanders around the entire room as Madame de..., in the lovely form of French actress Danielle Darrieux, searches for something she can sell to raise 20,000 francs, and eventually comes right back to them. She doesn't want to get rid of anything, you see, not her hats or her jewels and certainly not her furs. She doesn't want to get rid of these earrings either, but they're the things that she likes least. So off she goes to sell them, to Monsieur Rémy, the man who sold them to her husband to give to her to begin with. 'What will she tell her husband?' he asks her. 'She'll think of something,' she says.

She comes up with a pretty poor idea as ideas go, pretending that she's lost them at the opera, even though nobody really believes she was wearing them to begin with. Her husband, Général André de..., searches high and low for them, only giving up the search when Monsieur Rémy, reading the story of their suspected theft at the opera on the front page of the newspaper, brings them back to him. The général, who we quickly learn has an talent for diplomacy, closes the affair with panache, giving them to the lovely Lola as a souvenir as she heads off to Constantinople, never to see him again.

I've seen Danielle Darrieux precisely once, in another film by Max Ophüls, La ronde, in which she shone brightest of all the many stars that danced its dance. She's superb here too, elegant, distinguished and sophisticated, in what I've read is her best role of the many she's played. She's going strong today in a screen career that has spanned almost eighty years, a remarkable run from Le bal, in which she played a supporting role at the age of 14, to a recently announced Estonian film called Veel üks croissant, scheduled for a 2010 release. She also starred in an Anatole Litvak film called Mayerling in 1936, which saw her play opposite Charles Boyer, her screen husband here.
Darrieux hadn't changed much from La ronde to Madame de... but then there was only a three year gap between them, one that included another Max Ophüls film, Le plaisir. Boyer, on the other hand, looks notably different from anything else I've seen him. I probably first saw him in later films, like Casino Royale, but that was a long time ago and I didn't know who he was at the time. I got to know him through earlier films, from 1932's Red-Headed Woman to 1945's Confidential Agent, where he always hid his notably receding hairline with a toupee. He generally wore it in his films so as to appear more suitable as the romantic lead but never wore it in public. He's excellent here though without that toupee he's more reminiscent of Herbert Lom than Charles Boyer. Of course his voice is unmistakable.

There's a third player in this film, an Italian diplomat called Baron Fabrizio Donati, who falls in love with Madame de... after seeing her at a customs post in Basel and later meeting her in Paris. He's been to Constantinople, you see, where he bought a lovely pair of earrings, which he eventually gives to the Comtesse, from which point they drive the second half of the story even more obviously than they drove the first half. Donati is played by Italian director Vittorio di Sica, riding high as a director after The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. I've also seen one of the films he directed in 1953, when he acted in this one, but only in the mangled American version called Indiscretion of an American Wife. I've seen him before as an actor, in It Started in Naples, but he's better here, very believable as a man besotted with a woman who is not his own. It won't end well.

When watching La ronde, I was impressed by many of the stars of the film but stunned by the work of Max Ophüls, a director whose name crops up often when reading up on foreign films. He was German born but has three distict careers: in German film, American film and French film. It's the French films, like this that seem to resonate longest and strongest. Madame de... is less overt a piece of cinematic art than La ronde and more of a distinct story, but there are obvious literary and cinematic devices here and there, great shots throughout and always that roving camera. In an Ophüls film, the camera rarely stops moving and when it does you should pay attention because there's a reason for it, like an emotional scene between the Comtesse and the Baron as she discusses a painting of the battle of Waterloo and he merely looks at her.

The opening shot of La ronde was a stunning five minute shot, so I was interested to see what he'd do to open this one. It's not as long or as powerful but it's still an amazing shot that wanders everywhere through the Comtesse's room only to end where it began, with the earrings. We get one shot through her room and another to take her through the house to breakfast. This makes precisely two of his films for me but already it's patently obvious that anyone wanting to learn what to do with a camera should watch Ophüls. The best scenes are the ones in the middle of the film as Darrieux and De Sica dance. These are many scenes, at many different balls in many different locations, but they all segue blissfully into one as they dance through time, their relationship deepening and transforming as they go. I have a feeling that my journey through the work of Max Ophüls is going to be remarkably similar.

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