(This is the 37th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
Charles Boyer’s description of his marriage to Danielle Darrieux’s Madame de (we never learn her last name) is also a perfect description of the film: “superficially superficial.” Nothing could seem less interesting to me on the surface: a period romance about the rich, where people go to balls and flirt and wear fabulous clothes. But the milieu actually works to focus us on love; as Kael wrote, “By removing love from the real world of ugliness and incoherence and vulgarity, Ophüls was able to distill the essences of love.” I was reminded throughout the film of Renoir’s Grand Illusion, another film that showed us how honor worked amongst the upper classes. In Renoir’s film, class was the spanner in the works, but here, it’s gender: Madame de doesn’t operate under the same strictures of honor that her husband and her lover do, and eventually, no one trusts anyone else.
Madame de can’t be trusted because she lives outside the code that directs the men in her life. As long as she merely flirts, she’s playing her proper role. When she falls in love, though, she oversteps her boundaries. She doesn’t realize this at first, and she tells what seem to her to be little white lies, not understanding that lies of any kind exist outside of the men’s code of honor.
It’s a remarkable achievement, to take a shallow character like this Countess and make us understand her suffering. Early in the movie, she suffers only from the need to cover her gambling debts. Falling in love with a Baron played by Vittorio De Sica changes her, but when she blossoms, her men want only to clip her petals.
Ophüls is sympathetic to the men, as well, recognizing that the roles they are forced to play constrict their lives. Boyer’s admission late in the film, “I’m not particularly fond of the person you’ve made me out to be,” implicates both his wife and himself. He falters because of his attachment to his code, she because she doesn’t accept the code.
The main performances by Boyer, Darrieux, and De Sica are exquisite, individually and as they work together. And Ophüls’ trademark tracking camerawork draws us into the story, its lushness revealing as it entices.
Comments were slim … one person didn’t know it, another had seen it once ten years ago, and that was that.