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Critic Molly Haskell rightfully asks, should all 'greatest films' be pictures with male protagonists, about masculine goals?
After spending several years in Hollywood, the celebrated Max Ophuls returned to France to four superb dramas in a row. The director's reputation for excellence has only grown since his death in 1957. 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' sophisticated sex comedy La ronde became an international hit that allowed him to tackle even more experimental projects. The omnibus film La plaisir is a moving example of the short story form, and often noted for one of the most impressive moving camera shots ever made. 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 allows emotion to 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 in public but offers her husband only verbal affection, an arrangement he accepts but hopes will change. For her pursuit of romance outside her marriage, Louise needs spending money of her own. She sells a pair of precious earrings to a jeweler and reports that they have been lost. Indulging Louise's subterfuge, Andre buys back the earrings 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. To cover up Louise's sins and preserve the illusion of his marriage, Andre purchases and re-purchase the same jewels from the same jeweler, never revealing to Louise his knowledge 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 American film Letter from an Unknown Woman, starring Joan Fontaine. Both pictures center on women that subsist on romantic notions. The penniless innocent Lisa allows herself to be seduced by a dream beau. She spends a mostly miserable lifetime hoping for the return of her worthless lover. The painfully bittersweet ending forces us to ask whether Lisa is a victim of a man or of her own romantic illusions. Is true love nothing more than a license to suffer?
Madame Louise possesses everything Lisa lacks: money, position and respectability. Andre realizes that he's married the most popular woman in his social circle and knows that a show of jealousy in public or private would only drive her away. He's prepared to wait out Louise's 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 that must hide his feelings when repeatedly confronted with the 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. A creation of her class and her position, she 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. Cinematographer 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 executes masterful choreographed movements without drawing so much attention to itself. Today's Steadicam mounts make long tracking shots fairly easy, even for TV shows. Ophuls employs a conventional camera dolly and must rely 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's Blu-ray of The Earrings of Madame de... is an upgrade of their DVD from 2008. The difference is mostly in the added resolution and contrast range of HD; the brighter image seems more stable as well. We hope that Criterion will follow through -- when La ronde and La plaisir are on Blu, all of Ophuls' final work will be in HD, along with his American masterpiece Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Disc producer Johanna Schiller's excellent grouping of key-source extras has been retained. Scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar provide the audio commentary, while Tag Gallagher analyzes the film in a video essay. Paul Thomas Anderson contributes a video introduction. Ophuls collaborators Alain Jessua, Marc Frédérix and Annette Wademant appear in video interviews, and
In an amusing archival interview author Louise de Vilmorin expresses contempt for Ophuls' adaptation of her novel: "An Italian ambassador fighting a duel? Impossible!" Molly Haskell's booklet essay begins by listing Madame de ... at the top of her list of favorite films; her argument for its inclusion among the best films ever made is very persuasive. The fat booklet also contains de Vilmorin's entire novel, Madame de, as well as a lengthy text essay by costume designer Georges Annenkov.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Earrings of Madame de... Blu-ray rates:
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