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Blu-Ray Review - MADAME DE... (1953)

madame de... max ophuls review
A pair of earrings cause trouble in upper class Viennese society.







Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Max Ophuls

Starring: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica, Jean Debucourt

madame de... max ophuls bfi bluray

Max Ophuls' sinuously elegant drama about errant earrings and clandestine love sounds on paper like the worst kind of fluff. Add a milieu of military aristocracy and urbane riches that would have Julian Fellowes purring and you should have a film both tawdry and offensive. Madame de… is a masterpiece.

A film of elaborate camera moves and beautifully contrived set pieces, it is also a beautifully acted film, in particular Danielle Darrieux as the titular Madame, a performance as elegant and complex as the director's staging.


madame de... max ophuls

In Vienna, Louisa (Darrieux) is married to an older General (Charles Boyer), who despite being older and in a position of high authority, seems remarkably unperturbed by her succession of suitors and wayward spending habits. It would appear that rumpy pumpy outside of marriage is indulged as long as the L word never rears its ugly head.

Ophuls follows Louisa in one long tracking shot as she empties her wardrobe for furs and jewellery in order to pay off her debts. Choosing earrings (a present she never liked from her husband), she plans to make a show of losing them at the theatre before flogging them to Remy (Jean Debucourt), the jeweller who originally sold them to the General. Remy then tells the General what has happened; he then buys them back and gives them to his mistress, who loses them gambling (keep up), before finding their way into the hands of the Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica). That is when things get complicated (although more from an emotional vantage point than through any more plot contortions with those infernal earrings).

It is the emotional significance of the earrings - starting out as meretricious baubles and slowly transforming into totems of such significance that blood will eventually be spilled for them - rather than the monetary value, that is the true story.


madame de... max ophuls

The Baron is immediately smitten with Louisa, and whether through engineered happenstance or blind luck, literally bumps into her in his carriage. Once the Baron is introduced into Viennese society it is inevitable that their paths will intertwine, a courtship spurred on by the absence of the General attending to military matters. Their courtship and intensifying love for each other is wrought in one outstanding piece of cinema in which months are condensed into one dance as the backdrop changes and the dancefloor empties, save for the pair in question. The elegance of the dance and the virtuoso excellence of the staging leaves us in no doubt that they have both transgressed the sexual contract and fallen in love. To seal that pact, he gives her the very earrings she thought sold in the opening of the film.

Ophuls, as well as being firmly committed to the love affair, is also fully aware of the absurdities of the situation, as the earrings go awry a further two times, leading to the jewellery being castigated as he attempts to flog the earrings to the General one time too many. For all the lushness and elegance of the upper-class on which he focusses, Ophuls also has a keen eye on the underclass, be it the string quartet uninterested in the affair in front of them but just wanting to pack up and piss off, or the barracked soldiers who have to deal with an irate cuckolded General.

Once the seriousness of the affair is revealed, Louisa is sent away, leading to a beautiful montage of longing and sadness in various picturesque locales that ends with a letter being torn to shreds and scattered in the wind like snow before dissolving into an alpine vista; it's a transition that is one of the most beautiful in classic cinema.


madame de... max ophuls

For all of her modernity, Louisa is destined to suffer. Prone to fits of fainting, she is indulged by her husband when conforming to his frivolous notions of womanhood but constricted when going against societal norms. He may love her (certainly he more than she) but it is a cloistered stifling love. No more so than when discussing what she should do once the affair is revealed while slowly locking the windows in a psychological act of imprisonment. The Baron may be deeply in love with her but you feel society is more forgiving of the advances made towards a married woman if given sufficient encouragement. Both Boyer and De Sica give exemplary performances as the caring but unyielding martinet and the suave suitor, the latter's playboy good looks and easy going insouciance as an actor contrasting with the neorealist movement with which he made his name as a director.

If it strays into melodrama in its final reel, it can be indulged. This is one of those rare films in which all the component parts work together beautifully, easily holding a candle to those other classics of the mould, such as Casablanca and Mildred Pierce. It's a director at the very top of his game - one who died to soon. This is the last of his classics and should be required viewing for anyone who has the slightest love of what true cinema can do.
Extras:

A selection of some heft, including an hour-long documentary featuring interviews with academics and collaborators on Ophul's penultimate film. This is an extra of great weight and affection that is both fascinating in elucidating the themes, the director's working methods, the studio system at the time and the behaviour of some of the actors. Alain Jessua appears in the documentary and also has an interview all to himself discussing his training under Ophuls. Add to that a booklet featuring intelligent essays from Laura Mulvey, Adrian Danks, the late great Lindsay Anderson as well as an interview with the director and personal tributes to Ophuls after his death.

Madame de... is available on blu-ray and DVD now from BFI.

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