#93 (tie) – Madame de… (1953), dir. Max Ophüls

Madame de... (1953)

Mirror, mirror, at the ball. Director Max Ophüls brings the elegance in Madame de…, a lavishly staged romance set in European high society.

Max Ophüls kicked off his directorial career in his native Germany, but as so many other Jewish artists, he fled the Nazis in 1933 and eventually made his way to Hollywood at the outset of the 1940s. There he made a number of well-received films, including previous list movie Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), which drew on a Continental sophistication and moral flexibility that one did not find in the generally more prudish American studio system. But many of Ophüls most admired films were produced after his return to Europe in the 1950s. With Madame de… (aka The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953) Ophüls ups the ante in his depiction of fin de siecle upper-class society, drowning the film in gowns and ornately dressed sets. It also follows the lead of his previous list film in following the progression of an intense, but ultimately doomed affair. But Madame de… trades in a greater subtlety, working within the unwritten — and often unspoken — rules of society and enhancing the dynamics among characters through remarkable camerawork and staging. It is a film as elegant as its aristocratic leads, and as sparkling as the diamond earrings that launch the story. (100 min.)

J. – I have to say, this one was a bit of a disappointment. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t a good film — it definitely is — but I think it fair to say that it is not a great film. I might refer to it as a pleasant film. To be sure, we have seen a number of list movies that we didn’t didn’t particularly enjoy, but I feel like many of those films are of a sort that are bound to be divisive. Which is to say, I understood why some might find the movie to be a classic or at least a righteous experiment (something like Intolerance or L’Age d’Or comes to mind).

But Madame de… seems to generally lack a deep resonance; it came across to me as being basically all surface sheen. I will absolutely admit though that said sheen was particularly brilliant. This has to be one of the handsomest films that we’ve watched so far. The sets, costumes and lighting certainly contribute to that, giving the film a air of intense elegance and refinement. But I think it has much more going for it than production design and costumes, the film has perhaps the most elegant camera movement I can recall seeing. Ophüls and cinematographer Christian Matras frequently move their camera through sets, utilizing long takes and great precision in their shooting to give a certain balletic quality to the film that mirrors its content nicely. But for all this studied grandeur, I’m not sure it was enough in the face of a story (and to some degree characters) that were both overwrought and underbaked.

S. – While undeniable beautiful the film lacks passion. All the ingredients were there, yet I was left relatively unmoved by what was intended to be an emotional heavy hitter. The central theme of a flirtatious socialite Countess Louise (aka Madame de…) entertaining herself with various beaux under the amused eye of her husband is all fun and games until suddenly it isn’t. When Louise falls for Italian diplomat Baron Donati her actions begin to have consequences that she is not equipped to deal with. While the performances of the leading trio were all quite pleasing, I knew this film wasn’t working for me during the extended dance scene that marks the Baron as more than a passing fancy. The device itself, an extended sequence of the two lovers twirling through a series of evenings across numerous dancefloors, is a wonderful idea. Somehow the execution was lacking though, what should have been intensely romantic was somehow lacklustre. The chemistry was missing. I think part of the problem was the idea felt re-visited by Ophüls, I was put strongly in mind of a similar scene in Letter from an Unknown Woman, but I feel this wouldn’t have been a significant problem had the sparks really been flying.

Madame de...2

The film is shot marvellously and makes excellent use of the settings, such as having the lovers penned in by their surroundings in this shot as their affair fall apart. But the performances of the central pair tend to fall below the bar set by the camerawork and set dressing, which is a great pity.

J. – I think it important to bring up Letter from an Unknown Woman, because I do believe that my experience with that film — which I enjoyed immensely — strongly colored my viewing of this movie. Madame de… dives into very much the same bag of tricks as Ophül’s earlier film, which is rather disappointing. For instance, both films solidify the relationship between the star-crossed lovers in a dance scene in which they outlast the orchestra; both films end in a duel between lover and husband. So these story beats had a bit too much of a “been there, done that” feel to them. But just as you say, S., I think that would have been forgiveable if their had been more life to the film.

I would anticipate the easy counter to this claim is that this is meant to be a world of repressed emotion — one where understatement and what is not said are of perhaps greater importance than what is said. But I don’t think that rescues this picture. For one thing, a film like Letter from an Unknown Woman lets one feel the passion burning intensely beneath the awkward silence — and having just re-read and re-watched Sense and Sensibility (RIP Colonel Brandon!) I am reminded very strongly of how one approaches this kind of material successfully. But beyond that, this film is actually remarkably forthright in the way the characters express their desire as they fly in the face of convention. So if anything the passion should really be riseable and incandescent, but it just isn’t there. I found Danielle Darrieux to be surprisingly restrained and tepid, and she was matched by Vittorio de Sica who was also surprisingly stiff in this outing. (Apparently de Sica, the director of the fabulous Bicycle Thieves, is better at bringing out great performances in amateur actors than he is in giving them himself.) So one is left in the somewhat disconcerting position of having the most engaging and appealing character not being one of the lovers, but rather that of General Andre de… (Charles Boyer), the husband of the titular heroine.

Madame de...4

Charles Boyer is great fun to watch as the General. Indeed he is the only member of the central love triangle who has any life to him, as the man displays an impish sense of humor that contrasts nicely with his capacity for selfish anger.

S. – The husband was great, Boyer carried off the variety of humourous, sophisticated and dramatic material he was dealt in high style. I did feel it to be a bit awkward that the screen time with the third-wheel was more compelling than the central romance. My core complaint with Madame de… is that it could have been fantastic! Exploration of the intricacies of a complex marriage thrown off balance by the intrusion of a robust attraction has so much potential. Having seen this type of scenario handled in The Rules of the Game with so much more impact makes me think the missing ingredient was friction. I certainly did not like all of the characters in that film but I did believe that the stakes were high. All the characters were so pleasant here, their suffering came off as shallow, despite the visual cues provided I never felt really invested in their troubles. Dare I say Countess Louise needed to channel more Scarlett O’Hara to pull this off. With everyone so likeable and agreeable, no allegiance was inspired, the drama fell flat.

Madame de...5

Most of the film is set in lavish interiors, but the outdoor duel scene at the end is also strikingly handled and works in favor of de Sica’s dignified performance as Baron Donati. The scene doesn’t have the dramatic tension one might expect of a duel, but there is a simple power in its inevitability.

J. – I don’t particularly have any problem with the characters so much a I do with the characterization. I recognize that sounds a bit strange, but I suppose what I mean is that everything is there to make these characters work. As performers they were all generally charismatic and the characters themselves were strong and multifaceted. So just as you say, S., the potential is ever so evident. But the characterization goes awry after this solid base is established. Indeed, I felt the first few scenes of the film were the strongest — and certainly the funniest — as there was a natural affinity between the characters and their blithe decadence (I particularly liked the scenes involving the General’s mistress). But when the film stepped into more serious territory something just doesn’t quite click. There is a tonal imbalance that has the characters coming across as being untrue to their fundamental selves — at least with regard to the Countess and the Baron. Their love is meant to be fervent and passionate; yet the film and the characters stay so reserved. But not reserved enough for the affair to be of the smouldering sort — the unspoken desire telegraphed in knowing glances. I think to the scenes when the Countess has been sent away to the lakes — her downcast demeanor feels more like a show than true dismay — there is something absent in these moments that keeps the film from taking off or developing a more creeping, subtle intensity. If better handled this sort of ambiguity could have added layers to already interesting characters, but instead it tends to neuter them.

And that’s a damn shame, because when the film makes its way to the duel, we find ourselves in an outdoor scene that is impeccably filmed, but surprisingly empty. And I don’t think this was the intention of the filmmaker. The film is certainly a critique of the self-centred, flippant immorality of the ruling classes, but it is so mild — and so delicately filmed — that I couldn’t help but be a bit checked out by the end. And that’s a pity, because Madame de…‘s many merits are constantly before your face, but never quite able to look you in the eye.

Related yammers
#154 – Letter From and Unknown Woman (1948), dir. Max Ophüls
#4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir
#154 – Brief Encounter (1945), dir. David Lean

 

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