My Hall of Fame
Much can be said about the glorious career of filmmaker Max Ophuls, although I prefer to call him by his given name, Maximillian Oppenheimer, because it just sounds awesome. His films aren’t abundant in number, but their quality is undeniable. Between 1931 and his death in 1958, he made 23 full length film, plus was in the process of filming number 24. Throughout those years, he made films in Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States. But he spent his last few years back in France, making the most memorable and widely seen movies of his career, including “Lola Montes” (1955) and “Madame de…”, known to American audiences as “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953).
The plot of “Madame de…” centers around Louise, masterly portrayed by Danielle Darrieux. She is married to a wealthy General (Charles Boyer) who gives her everything that she desires in life, except of course, happiness. Because of her lavish lifestyle, Louise has accrued substantial debts, and decides to sell a pair of diamond earrings that her husband gave her on their weddings day. Although she had no way of knowing, this decision to sell the earrings begins a chain of events that will forever alter her life, as well as the lives of those around her.
From the opening shot of this magnificent film, the audience knows it’s in for something special. Ophuls masterfully shows us what is important in the life of Louise: her room, her coats, her clothes and her jewelry. She searches for something that she can sell, and Ophuls carefully has her scour her extensive room for something valuable, without ever showing her face. Why? Because her face doesn’t matter, just as her name doesn’t matter. She, as a woman, is unimportant. It’s what she represents as a spoiled, aristocratic, bourgeois woman, without love in her life, that really matters.
Once she discovers love with the more than willing baron (Vittorio De Sica), she changes as a person and as a character. Louise is no longer spoiled of self pretentious because she is in love, and her entire world revolves around this love. The hopeless romantic is one with which it is easy to identify, even though we see her inevitable downfall. She doesn’t care what her husband thinks, what the world thinks, or even about the same possessions with which she couldn’t part at the beginning of the film. Now she only cares about her love, her baron, and of course, her earrings.
“Madame de…” is a wondrous picture because although there is nothing flashy or overly intense involved, it still manages to deliver on every possible level. The most memorable aspect of this film is the camera, and the way it moves throughout our story. Cinematographer Christian Matras always seems to be connected with magnificent pictures, and perhaps that is no coincidence. The camera in this film doesn’t just move around the room, showing the audience what is happening. It transports us into the world of Louise, and makes us her most trusted maid servant. We, as the audience, experience her desires, her confusion, her obsession and at long last, her heartbreak.
Early into the picture, we don’t seem to care. The audience is just observing, smiling at the coincidences that unfold, Somehow, as the film continues, Ophuls finds a way to creep into our minds and our hearts, resulting in a personal investment that we didn’t even make intentionally. We care without even realizing why.
I would like to call special attention to the scene of this film where Louise and the baron fall in love, because this scene, above all others in the film, shows the genius that is Max Ophuls. The two characters begin dancing together at a party. They have only just meet, and although there is an undeniable attraction, they are quite cordial with each other. As the scene continues, we see them dancing, but we are transported to the next party that they have attended, and then the next, and then the next. Each party shows how their infatuation and desire for one another has grown, but it is all through the course of one dance for us, the audience. This scene is extremely reminiscent of the “breakfast table” scene in “Citizen Kane” (1941), and it serves as an homage, as well as the perfect way to transport through time without diminishing our interest in the story.
One could go on for hours discussing and dissecting the beauty of “Madame de…”, but the truth is that it isn’t a film that needs my endorsement. All it needs (and deserves) is a chance to prove that it is an extraordinary film, and that Max Ophuls, the artist behind it, was one of the greatest of all time.