Madame de . . .
MADAME DE . . .
(The Earrings of Madame de . . . )
Director: Max Ophüls
Production: Franco-London Films, Indus, and Rizzoli; black and white, 35mm; running time: 105 minutes. Released 1953.
Producer: Ralph Baum; screenplay: Max Ophüls, Marcel Achard, and Annette Wademant, from a novella by Louise de Vilmorin; photography: Christian Matras; editor: Boris Lewin; production designer: Jean d'Aubonne; music: Oscar Strauss and George Van Parys.
Cast: Danielle Darrieux (Madame De); Charles Boyer (Monsieur De); Vittorio De Sica (Baron Donati); Lia de Léa (Monsieur De's mistress); Jean Debucourt.
Ophüls, Max, Marcel Achard, and Annette Wademant, Madame de. . . , in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), June 1986.
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* * *
The Earrings of Madame de . . . is one of the four films—all made in the 1950s shortly before his death—that constitute the highest expression of Max Ophüls's personal style. Along with La ronde, Le plaisir, and Lola Montès, the film combines all the technical ingredients and thematic concerns that had preoccupied Ophüls throughout his rather "up and down" career. Foremost among these interests, of course, was the intricate blending of complex, dazzling camera work with the themes of mankind's obsession with material objects—and a kind of poignant romanticism usually misconstrued by critics attempting to pigeonhole him as a director of women's films much like Douglas Sirk.
In Madame de there is a notion of mutability: the earrings, being material, remain constant, but the changing emotional circumstances of their possessors increase their symbolic value until they become the emblems of a domestic catastrophe. To some extent, however, the characters also remain static: they are unchanging in surface demeanour, yet the rush of time alters each one's status and effects a transition in their personalities. Madame de, for example, matures from a supercilious young girl into a truly passionate woman betrayed by the depth of her emotion, while, at the same time, her husband and lover evolve correspondingly but somewhat less noticeably because they are more reluctant than Madame de to deviate from their sense of propriety.
One element in the clash between relentless time and the seeming intransigence of objects and events is Ophüls's tenacious tracking camera and its unrelenting interchange of shots and episodes. Another is the brisk unfolding of the narrative, which delicately balances a lush, rich atmosphere with lean camera technique. This interplay is particularly evident in the film's opening scene: the camera follows a woman's hand as it glides along a rack of expensive clothes in a lavishly appointed wardrobe, and then, without a pause, the camera clings to the woman as she admires her earrings in the mirror of her dressing table. In one continuous shot, Ophüls establishes a world of extravagant material possessions and then hones in on the frivolous, silly woman who seems virtually a part of them as she sits reflected in the mirror.
Later, however, in the ball sequence, the camera dazzlingly plays against the sumptuous surroundings to create a rush of time that encapsulates Madame de's progress from frivolity to tragedy without her having changed the tempo of her dance (a parallel to the changing value of the symbolic earrings as they float from hand to hand while remaining materially constant). With her lover she dances round and round from one elegant ballroom to another under the constant gaze of the encircling camera, which reveals the deepening feelings of the couple. Finally, as they slowly glide through the last dance in the sequence, the air of gaiety disappears. The camera then moves to follow a servant in one long continuous shot as he goes from light to light, extinguishing them; the sequence ends in darkness as he throws a cover over a harp.
The party is over. Frivolity has become romance, and love becomes tragedy. As in all of Ophüls's best films, every element is interconnected—technique, pacing, theme, and character—to intertwine both the light and tragic strains and to resolve the seemingly divergent tensions into a final mood of desolation.
—Stephen L. Hanson