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what i watched last week

blu-ray series #7: the earrings of madame de ... (max ophüls, 1953)

(The “Blu-ray Series” is by request from my wife, who said I had to watch all of the Blu-rays on the shelf that I hadn’t gotten around to, before I bought any more.)

I wrote about this film two years ago, when I was revisiting my 50 Favorite Movies from our Facebook project. It was #14:

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.

Since this is the Blu-ray series, I’ll talk a bit about some of the extras. There’s an interview with the author of the original novel, Louise de Vilmorin, who savages the film. She thinks it is awful, and gives several reasons why, all of which can be summarized as “they changed my book”. (You can decide on this for yourself … the booklet accompanying the package includes de Vilmorin’s novel.) Particularly strong is an essay by Molly Haskell, who opens with an interesting take on why Madame de … doesn’t always get the respect it deserves:

For those of us who rank The Earrings of Madame de . . . at the top of our list of all-time favorite films, the mystery is why our passion isn’t universally shared. Every year, thanks to committed revival houses, new members are recruited to our cult, but Ophuls’s masterpiece never seems to attain the universal accolade of “greatness” automatically granted to movies like The Godfather or Citizen Kane. To most people, “great” means big, inescapably masculine and bold, and probably Important with a capital I.

This in turn implies an effort with a socially redeeming political or quasi-political ambition, a dissection (and, often covertly, a celebration) of the ways of powerful men. Is Ophuls left off of those lists because the German-born director and man of the world made films about women, and in the case of 1953’s The Earrings of Madame de . . . , a period film about an upper-class woman whose cushioned existence is light-years away from that of the ordinary people of contemporary cinema and the toilers on the margins of life?

Madame de … sneaks up on you, especially the first time you see it. You may find it actually superficial at first. It plays like farce, and it is easy to imagine a play that takes a different approach … they could make a Fred and Ginger movie out of the basic concept of the earrings. And, as I note above and as Haskell also mentions, these people, rich and seemingly frivolous, initially deflects the idea that it is more than merely superficial. By the end, we see how wrong such an appraisal would be. #108 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. That is scandalously low. 10/10. Nothing else by Ophüls has entranced me the way Madame de … does, but Letter from an Unknown Woman is very highly regarded (I haven’t seen it), so that would be a good companion piece.


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