Elsewhere on this site, you will find a 3000-word piece on this film. However, since I have just added it to my 100 Greatest Films List, which you will also find elsewhere on this blog, I have composed the following 300-word entry for inclusion in that list:
In early twentieth-century Paris, Louise (Danielle Darrieux, sublime), a comtesse, has two great loves: her Catholic faith; Baron Fabrizio Donati. Her marriage was probably, for her, one of financial convenience; but André (Charles Boyer, brilliant), a military general, loves Louise. When the two men come to fight their fatal duel, André, the instigator, uses the pretext that the baron favors diplomacy over war—a professional division. In reality, the class division between them is more relevant; it galls the General that his wife loves Donati, not him. The humorous triviality of the duel’s pretext shelters André’s pride, then; this sketches in a method that Ophüls uses throughout, 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 viewpoint as Louise’s hands anxiously ransack her finery and her jewelry box in search of the right thing to sell. Marital dissatisfaction has driven up her debts. We catch a glimpse of her as she glances into a mirror—a fractured integrity and identity.
In a way, the film subjectively expands a patch of objectivity: the cut-and-dried newspaper account of Madame de . . .’s “lost” earrings. The film’s most celebrated passage traces the course of Louise and the Baron’s falling in love. With the music continuous, the event is compressed from a series of public dances over time. Their illicit love consists of nothing but stolen moments that their increasingly tight embrace poignantly tries 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 as Louise and Fabrizio’s faint shadows predicting the lovers’ tragic end.
We feel a rush of feeling, the passage of time.