Friday, December 30, 2016

Madame de... (1953)

The Earrings of Madame de..., France / Italy, 105 minutes
Director: Max Ophüls
Writers: Louise de Vilmorin, Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls, Annette Wadamant
Photography: Christian Matras
Music: Oscar Straus, Georges Van Parys
Editor: Boris Lewyn
Cast: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica, Lea di Lea, Jean Debucourt

A hasty internet search this morning failed to reveal the circumstances of the title change for the American release of this movie (to The Earrings of Madame de...). So I don't know who did it or why. What's interesting is how it subtly yet effectively alters the prevailing frame, from a wry focus on the upper-class foibles of the elaborately unnamed protagonist, which is appropriate, to a focus rather on a classic cinematic "MacGuffin," a plot device of an object in which all characters have an interest, but which otherwise has little point. The statue in The Maltese Falcon is a classic MacGuffin.

Just so, the earrings in question, which appear in the first and last shots of this movie, are a notably busy kind of MacGuffin all through, moving from the possession of one character to another over a dozen times, which is taken to a particular point in the second half where credulity itself begins to be strained. It's easy to be distracted by them, so easy that you might be tempted to feature them in a retitle for midcentury American audiences. But this MacGuffin actually has meaning—many meanings. The earrings are always a reflection of any character in possession of them at the moment they have them, and always further receding reflections in an opposing mirror of Madame de (we never quite catch her name though it comes up now and again, concealed presumably as a matter of valor or at least discretion). At first the Madame finds the earrings ugly, when she is deciding to sell them to pay off illicit debts. Later, when she can no longer possess them, she will love them with all her heart.

But the story of the earrings is actually not so much the point of Madame de..., which is more a set of wry character studies that somehow deepen to weighty human drama. Its formal qualities might be more what it's known for, tending to obscure other aspects of it. The restless swirling camera, the long and intricate takes utilizing tracking and crane shots—all the deceptive elegance that makes it seem so debonair and Continental. The opening scene is a famous example, following the Madame (Danielle Darrieux) as she browses her jewelry stores and closets for valuables to pawn. The camera dances and moves around her in the position of a servant, now tracking over her shoulder, now pivoting back as she sits to put her face in the mirror, always moving with her, giving up the frame to her.

Madame de... is full of such business. It's also bold, nearly reckless, about the way it advances its plot ("Coincidence is only extraordinary," says one character as if apologizing, "because it's so natural"). The Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica), a diplomat, is taken with the Madame from the moment he first sees her, in a Basel train station, but he is unable to have a word. Some time later they meet again when their horse-drawn carriages literally crash on the street in an accident. "Will we meet again?" the Baron asks anxiously, hinting for an exchange of cards or the 19th-century equivalent of phone numbers. "Certainly," says the Madame as her carriage goes careening away. "Fate is on our side."

It is indeed. Of course they meet again and of course they fall in love, which is charted delightfully by a series of dancing scenes spaced out over a week or two, with deepening feelings on both sides even as they dance, dance, dance. The Madame's husband, however, the General (Charles Boyer, as the heavy), will not suffer such humiliations as his wife carrying on with a diplomat of his own set. We see that he has his own affairs and plays by his own rules—above all, discretion and saving face are what matters most to him. "Our marital happiness is as we are," he says by way of wry explanation. "It is only superficially that it is superficial."

The shifting meanings of the earrings—now they are a gift from the General to the Madame on their wedding day, now they are a way for her to pay off her debts, now they are a guilt gift to the General's own paramour at a hasty breakup scene, and always they are comically of profit to the jewelry dealer—all this clarifies the story as it goes, in all its complexity. But the movie is more of a chamber drama about love and a marriage in crisis. That's where I think it matters. The Madame's penchant for witty white lies to wriggle out of situations goes from enchanting to tragic over the course of the picture, which strangely starts to feel very real, even with all the sumptuous artifice around it. Madame de... is romantic and memorably so but it's not mushy.

It's well fortified with its production design and all its little sophistications. It also has three remarkable performances leading it. De Sica is fun to see just knowing he's also the guy who directed Bicycle Thieves—it's a little cognitive dissonance, with his privileged baron diplomat role here. But he's good, very convincing. Boyer is interesting as a Napoleonic man of the world who is not above petty vengeance when wounded. Petty? Well, not giving anything away, his final affront is anything but petty. Darrieux is best of all, an anonymous woman of the upper class, who is elegant, poised, and charming in all things. She conveys everything with tilts of her head and a way of smiling and holding her eyes. She is also full of little faults, which hardly seem to add up to major character flaws, but obviously a woman must pay for her adultery. Darrieux's range and control carry the picture all the way.

In the end, however, as from the beginning, it's apparent Madame de... belongs above all to director and cowriter Max Ophüls. The production is smooth and sophisticated, guiding us into an ease of accepting this strange world of the wealthy and entitled. Ophüls is so good he can almost make you forget this is a movie about rich people empowered to irresponsible behavior by wealth and make you start thinking it's actually more about something like that old warhorse, "the human condition." Well, isn't it? Either way, it's a pleasure.

Top 10 of 1953
1. Tokyo Story
2. Ugetsu
3. Madame de...
4. War of the Worlds
5. Duck Amuck (7 min.)
6. M. Hulot's Holiday
7. The Wages of Fear
8. Pickup on South Street
9. Niagara
10. Call Me Madam

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. As you know, it is one of my very favorite movies, one I never tire of. I wouldn't call Boyer the heavy ... the "human condition" aspect of the characters makes them all understandable, even real. Rarely has a movie described itself better than this one, with "superficially superficial".