MADAME DE . . . (Max Ophüls, 1952)

Closer to Anna Karenina than any of the numerous film versions of Tolstoi’s novel, Madame de . . . actually derives from a trivial novella, set before the Great War in the early twentieth century, by Louise de Vilmorin. Arguably it is, apart from Battleship Potemkin, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Citizen Kane, the single most famous film ever made. Inarguably, it is the masterpiece of Max Ophüls, the German Jewish filmmaker, born Max Oppenheimer, who skipped from one country to the next in the 1930s and 1940s, eluding Adolf Hitler’s grasp. Ophüls, of course, wasn’t entitled to the nobility of his pseudonym (this was his invention, like the von that Erich Stroheim and Josef Sternberg adopted), but, when he confessed his ruse to the actual Ophüls family, which had made inquiries, they welcomed him into the fold with open arms. After all, he was no one to be ashamed of.

The title Madame de . . . refers to the film’s main character. Her last name is not disclosed. Since her first name, like that of the author, is Louise, though, we may presume she is the author’s self-projection and complete the fictitious woman’s name accordingly. Regardless, throughout the film we are teased into thinking we will hear or see the woman’s married name, but we never do. This begins humorously, but by the end of the film, when the shot showing the name placard accompanying her final offering to her favorite saint at church is cropped sideways, allowing us to see only “Madame de,” the result is tragic. This woman never found out who she is as a person, and now her life has been cut short. She will be identified henceforth with the man she really loved, not the one she was married to. All kinds of associations attend the aural and visual abortings of her married name. Finally, let us remember that the title plays on the old practice in newspapers of not identifying persons where scandal is involved so that legal reprisals could be avoided. Madame de . . . echoes Madame de—.

In the U.S., the title became The Earrings of Madame De . . . . The U.S. is forever changing titles, distorting the meaning of films, corrupting audiences by thus guiding them to a misinterpretation of the films. The classic example is Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette), which became here The Bicycle Thief, as though the film were the portrait of an anomaly, a criminal individual, rather than a social portrait and protest. (More often, titles are changed to make the films seem more seductive.) But materialistic Americans might indeed believe that her jewels matter more than Louise does. This is a corruption of the whole intent of the film, in which Louise is infinitely precious and her diamond earrings have no intrinsic value to her. Her husband, the General, gave her the earrings as a wedding gift, but she secretly sells them in order to pay off debts that her extravagance has accrued—extravagance that in itself provides an index of her marital dissatisfaction. The jewels mean nothing to Louise because she isn’t in love with her husband. Yet they become priceless to her when she is given them again, this time as a gift from the man with whom she has fallen in love. Louise’s feelings deprive the jewels of value in one instance and confer value in the other. Only in America could people believe that the film is about diamonds and not about the woman. (Well, not quite: the Italian title translates as The Emblazonments of Madame de . . . .)

The time is early twentieth century; the place, Paris. (The film itself is from France; Ophüls settled there after the war.) Louise and her husband, André, come from two different but intersecting worlds. She is a comtesse—a member of the titled nobility; he is a general in the military, which in France confers great standing. The implication is clear: for Louise, this marriage was probably one of financial convenience. As a result of it, she lives as grandly as her ancestors had once been able to by virtue of family fortune and status. Although we may assume that André married Louise, at least in part, because of the allure of her nobility (throughout the film he praises her for her nobility), it is also unmistakable that he is very much in love with her. (We have no way of knowing whether this love of his predated the marriage; we do know that, by his own admission, he has been routinely unfaithful and that he tells her he loves her, in a voice too low to be probably heard by her, only when he is worried that he is about to lose her.) The Italian diplomat with whom Louise falls in love and who falls in love with her, Fabrizio Donati, is a baron. He and Louise, unlike André and Louise, in some sense belong to the same world, although the two men belong to the same club. When they come to fight the duel that will end in the death of one of them, André, the instigator, uses the pretext that the baron favors diplomacy over war—a professional division. In reality, the class division between the two is more relevant, because it adds salt to the wound at the base of their quarrel: the galling fact, for the General, that his wife loves Donati and not him. The humorous triviality of the pretext for the duel shelters André’s pride and humiliation, then; indeed, this sketches in a method that Ophüls uses throughout the film, where a light touch masks a harsh, even a potentially lethal, reality.

The film opens rapturously, with a seemingly perpetually tracking camera adopting a subjective point of view as Louise’s hands ransack her finery and her jewelry box in search of the right thing to sell for money. Madame de . . . passes over the diamond earrings, saying, “If only my husband hadn’t given these to me as a wedding gift!”—or words to that effect, the meaning being, these baubles mean little to me, but my spouse will notice their absence if I get rid of them. She returns to them, however, because everything else she owns holds more charm and more value for her. This long passage is accompanied by humming and singing on the soundtrack. At first we think it’s the woman’s own melodious voice. Then we’re not so sure. We capture a glimpse of Madame de . . . as she glances into a mirror. We hear the lilting melody by Oscar Straus, both as background music and as humming or singing, but Madame de . . .’s lips aren’t moving except when she speaks to herself. (Straus—one s and no relation to anyone with two s’s; nevertheless, the composer of the loveliest music that ever graced the movies.) This instantly fractures our sense of Madame de . . ., implying a lack of integrity and identity. It is an objective touch that pulls in a direction opposite to the subjective camera in motion. Ophüls thus establishes irony as one of the methods of his film, as the fluent use of the tracking camera halts in long-shot with Madame de . . . at her mirror, and the casual, carefree air of the music is undercut by a debt-ridden woman’s anxious search for something to unload for cash. Madame de . . . hurries down the stairs in her opulent home, headed for the jeweler’s to strike her bargain, a deceitful woman about to sell her husband’s most intimate gift. Only later do we realize that all she had to do is ask her husband for the money she needs; but this she could not do, out of pride, of course (a woman of her station doesn’t ask her spouse, who is of a lower class, for money), but also because to do so might stress the founding basis of their marriage and expose the marital dissatisfaction that has been driving up her debt. She and André have a genteel, delicately poised union in which she pretends that it isn’t the case that she doesn’t love him and he pretends not to know that she doesn’t. Taking a cue from Citizen Kane, Ophüls may be implying, “It was a marriage like any other marriage”—at least regarding the limited choices that a woman at that time faced. When marriage means, above all, financial security, love as a first option becomes an unaffordable luxury.

Once one is settled into loveless security, though, love as a second option, as an extramarital option, may prove a necessity. Madame de . . .’s earrings light the path to this necessity. After Madame de . . . sells back to the original jeweler, behind her husband’s back, the diamonds that the General gave her as a wedding gift, behind her back the jeweler resells them to the General, who can therefore well gauge how little his wife loves him. In turn, he gives the earrings as a parting gift to Lola, his mistress, who loses them at the roulette tables in Constantinople. The next time we see them, back in Paris, they are in the possession of Baron Donati, who explains at customs that he bought them in Constantinople. It is significant that Ophüls denies us a view of the purchase; by doing this, he undercuts the dynamic life that the jewels seemed to possess on their own. The truth is, Donati doesn’t precisely know why he bought them; but when he falls in love with Louise, he gives them to her as a gift, and, because she reciprocates his love, the jewels that meant nothing to her as a gift from her spouse suddenly mean the world to her. Ophüls has seduced us with the idea of the importance of the jewels, but, really, it is love that matters. It is in this context, which André’s jealousy eventually takes over and dictatorially directs, that the future course of the jewels, which pass through familiar and different hands, is best understood.

The two great loves of the childless Madame de . . .’s life are her Catholic faith and Baron Fabrizio Donati. To pay her debts, Madame de . . . might have chosen her exquisite cross rather than the earrings, but, talking aloud to herself, she rejects this because she “adores” it. Before visiting the jeweler, she lights a candle in church. Eventually, because of the duel about to be fought between her husband and Donati, the diamonds are her ultimate offering for a saint’s protection of the man she loves. The General kills the Baron. The church is left in possession of the jewels. For all her allegiance to her faith, this faith is revealed to be a hollow thing; Madame de . . . gives to it adoringly, lovingly, and gets little or nothing back on her emotional investment. The implication is fierce and startling. Either God has nothing to give or, jealous like the General, does not wish to compete with another of Madame de . . .’s loves. It is impossible for me not to translate this strand of the film’s import into the terms that decidedly shook Max Ophüls’s Jewish, not Catholic, heart. Jewish love of God, not to mention God’s alleged love of Jews, did nothing to prevent the Holocaust. (See my piece on Ophüls’s four-years-earlier Letter from an Unknown Woman.)

In a sense, the film is the subjective expansion of a patch of objectivity: the cut-and-dried newspaper account of Madame de . . .’s lost earrings, which invites a host of speculations, we are given to understand, from within her and the General’s circle of friends and acquaintances. Irony is the method of this film, and it is ironical that the “facts” given in the printed news story are all untruths proceeding from Madame de . . .’s self-serving deception: innocent lies, if you will, intended to harm no one, just cover up her status of debt from her spouse. But the film shows us the emotional truths pertaining to Madame de . . ., including the course of her impassioned romance with Donati to which the situation to which the news story refers leads, behind the news account and lying in wait ahead of it. A sense of predestination develops, in contrast to the isolated snapshot of time that the news account represents. Everything pertaining to Madame de . . . comes to seem as though it is weighed upon by the pressures of eternity. Every one of Ophüls’s signature tracking shots in this film, like all tracking shots, must come to an end, and our awareness of this contributes to their meaning. Every seemingly liberated movement of Ophüls’s camera is constrained by the conclusion it will inevitably reach—a conclusion haunted by the inevitable end of Madame de . . . .

The film’s most celebrated passage traces the course of Madame de . . . and the Baron’s falling in love. The event is compressed from a series of public dances over time. The music is continuous as Ophüls and his cutter, Borys Lewin, shift from one dance floor to the next, one dance to the next between Louise and Fabrizio, their embrace tightening as they grow more and more dear to one another. The inspiration for the passage is undoubtedly the bravura passage in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) that charts the downward trajectory of Kane’s marriage to his first wife, Emily, through a series of breakfast table encounters that show them growing progressively further and further apart. Some may find Ophüls’s version a rapturous, upbeat version of the same technique, but, in reality, the dark nature of the Welles passage deepens the heartbreak of the Ophüls passage. Louise’s and Fabrizio’s whole lives now are played out on the dance floor. Their illicit love consists of nothing but stolen moments—moments that their increasingly tight embrace poignantly attempts to make private as they inhabit the space of their own emotions, oblivious to the other couples on the dance floor who, in the swirl of the waltz, often appear to our eye as Louise and Fabrizio’s faint shadows. Their early incapacity to bring their mutual love to a satisfying state predicts the lovers’ tragic end. It is the end that the General skillfully manufactures as, driven by offended pride, he divides the would-be lovers even though this separation drains the health and will to live from the woman whom he presumably loves. He finds no hypocrisy here, given his own extramarital affairs, because his heart was never in these while Louise is manifestly in love with Donati.

During Louise and Fabrizio’s stitched-together, increasingly intimate turns on the dance floor that become one elongated dance over time, the immortal dance of love encased in the mortal dance of life, we see the couple as best we can. Our effort in keeping track of the couple is correlative to the painfulness of their circumstance, the dire nature of their impossible love. Ophüls teases the clarity and directness of our sight; other couples interfere with our line of vision, as do gigantic plants through whose bladelike leaves we espy the socially obstructed pair. The motion of the dancing itself dizzies and distracts our eye, as does the movement of the camera that keeps up with this motion; the two would-be lovers cling to one another, then, in defense of our gaze, in defense of the motion and the movement, holding on to love, holding on to life. By implication, life is streaming out of the couple as we watch, a harbinger of their fates. Related to this is the beginning of the film, where we see Louise for the first time as a reflection in a mirror. (This is a film of gauze, silk, reflections.) This method of introducing her to us suggests the extent to which Louise’s self-absorbed reality is determined by, while at the same time being a defense against, society’s view of her. Her “reality” is at a remove, then; this seemingly willful creature lacks, in fact, self-determination. In a sense, Louise is at a remove from life. In following her, we follow a shadow, and her increasingly agitated circumstance becomes a reflection of our own mortal anxiety. Even if the specifics of this circumstance hadn’t thwarted and in some cases ended their lives, the characters in this film, about fifty years earlier than the present (and longer, the later in time that we catch up with the film), all would have passed away by now—except for the boy, the jeweler’s son, perhaps, whose cheerful, perfectly loving obedience to his father deepens our sense of the passage of time by suggesting a world that no longer exists. And the knowledge of this that we bring to the film contributes to its emotional texture and sense of tragedy.

Charles Boyer is a wonderful actor often, but the General is his most complex and fascinating creation. Danielle Darrieux is enchanting as the vain, self-centered Louise, whose love for the Baron utterly transforms her. (Like Fanny Skeffington in Vincent Sherman’s 1944 Mr. Skeffington, Louise has a flock of suitors with whom she flirts, all of whom the General tolerates. Only the Baron he cannot tolerate.) Vittorio De Sica is dashing and passionate as Donati.

The script is by Ophüls, Annette Wademant and Marcel Achard. The lovely, limpid black-and-white cinematography is by Christian Matras.

Critic Andrew Sarris has called Madame de . . . the greatest film ever made. It is certainly a gracious portrait of romantic anxiety and the sheer grip of love. It’s one of those rare films where the viewer keenly feels a rush of feeling and the passage of time.

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