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The Earrings of Madame de ...

The Earrings of Madame de ...
Criterion 445
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 100 min. / Madame de... / Street Date September 16, 2008 / 39.95
Starring Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica, Jean Debucourt, Jean Galland, Mireille Perrey.
Christian Matras
Production Design Jean d'Eaubonne
Film Editor Borys Lewin
Original Music Oscar Straus, Georges Van Parys
Written by Marcel Achard, Max Ophuls, Annette Wademant, Marcel Achard from a novel by Louise de Vilmorin
Produced by Ralph Baum
Directed by Max Ophuls

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The legendary Max Ophuls has been gone more than fifty years, but nothing in filmmaking has surpassed his finest work. His Lola Montés is to the "woman's film" what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to Science Fiction, a revolutionary experiment in both structure and content.

Ophuls' 1949 return to Europe from a decade in Hollywood resulted in a brief series of gems. His sophisticated comedy of morals La ronde became an international hit, and the trilogy La plaisir is a moving experiment in the short story form. 1953's The Earrings of Madame de ... (known in France just as Madame de ...) is considered by many to be Ophuls' masterpiece. It's a tale of etiquette and chivalry, and the risks that accrue when a society woman lets emotion rule her actions.

In late 19th century France, "Madame Louise de..." (Danielle Darrieux) is the pampered wife of the wealthy army general "Andre de ..." (Charles Boyer); neither is identified by a last name. Louise is first seen fussing over her closets of fine clothing and shoes. She plays the dutiful wife but offers her husband only verbal affection, an arrangement he accepts but hopes will change. In her pursuit of romantic illusions outside of marriage, Louise needs spending money of her own. She pretends that she's lost a pair of precious earrings but in actuality has sold them to a jeweler. Accepting Louise's subterfuge, Andre buys the earrings back and gives them to a mistress departing for the Orient. Later, Louise meets Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), an Italian diplomat returning from the East. The Baron gives Louise the same earrings, and she pretends to "find" them as an excuse to again wear them in public. For various humiliating reasons, Andre must purchase and re-purchase the same jewels from the same jeweler, never revealing to Louise that he's aware of her lies and subterfuge. But when the affair between Louise and the Baron becomes common gossip, Andre's patience comes to an end.

Madame Louise de ... can be seen as the mirror image of Lisa in Ophuls' earlier Letter from an Unknown Woman, an American film starring Joan Fontaine. Both pictures center on women who subsist on romantic notions. The penniless innocent Lisa allows herself to be seduced and spends a mostly miserable lifetime hoping that her worthless lover will return. The painfully bittersweet ending forces us to decide whether Lisa is a victim of a man or of her own romantic illusions. Is pure love nothing more than a license to suffer?

Madame Louise has everything Lisa lacks: money, position and respectability. Andre realizes that he's married the most popular woman in their society and knows that jealousy in public or private would only drive Louise away. He's prepared to wait out her casual dalliances with admirers, and he's even willing to accept Louise's "tender refusals" of intimacy. In The Earrings of Madame de ..., it's Andre who must hide his feelings when confronted repeatedly with evidence of Louise's infidelity. The strength of the story is that, although the outwardly elegant Louise is a prize fool, she means no malice and is only following the dictates of her heart.

Max Ophuls' celebrated style finds its best expression gliding through palace-like homes, opera houses, Andre's headquarters and the salon where the jeweler discreetly sells and re-sells the telltale earrings, symbols of Louise's infidelity. Christian Matras' long takes aren't as ostentatious as the one in Le Plaisir that moves through two rooms of an artist's garret, climbs a set of stairs and then plunges out of a high window. Mirroring the personalities of the characters, the camera follows their tentative movements, seldom drawing attention to itself but frequently executing masterful choreographed movements. When a tyro director wants to impress, the first trick out of the box is a gratuitous long-take master shot, using a Steadicam mount that makes such shots relatively easy to accomplish. Ophuls employs a conventional camera dolly and relies on careful planning and precise set design. His fluid moving camera shots have no equal for taste and discretion.

Danielle Darrieux is the epitome of privileged grace and Charles Boyer an exemplar of masculine restraint. They played opposite one another years before in a French version of Mayerling directed by Anatole Litvak; watching their byplay here is an education in matrimonial tragedy. As Louise and Andre perform polite greetings, we're forced to ponder the exact politics of their relationship. Does the fact that Andre sees casual mistresses impose an unfair double standard on their marriage? Director Vittorio De Sica is a perfect choice to play the kind of handsome foreigner Louise dreams about; the Baron remains composed even when admitting an affair with another man's wife. Ophuls' sense of romantic fatality insures that the destinies of all three leave an indelible impression; his film is nothing less than magnificent.

Criterion presents The Earrings of Madame de ... in a clean B&W transfer that reveals fine details of costumes, settings and subtle facial expressions. Disc producer Johanna Schiller has arranged an excellent grouping of key-source extras. Scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar provide the audio commentary, while Tag Gallagher analyzes the film in featurette form. Molly Haskell's booklet essay begins by listing Madame de ... at the top of her list of favorite films. Paul Thomas Anderson contributes a video introduction. Ophuls collaborators Alain Jessua, Marc Frédérix and Annette Wademant appear in video interviews, and costume designer Georges Annenkov's observations are offered in a lengthy text essay.

In an amusing archival interview author Louise de Vilmorin expresses contempt for Ophuls' adaptation of her novel: "An Italian ambassador fighting a duel? Impossible!" The fat booklet also contains a hefty excerpt from de Vilmorin's novel, Madame de.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Earrings of Madame de ... rates:
Movie: Excellent +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, introduction, video interviews and "visual analysis", essays, book excerpt
Packaging: plastic and card disc holder with book in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 1, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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