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Hard Of Earring: Max Ophüls’ Madame De… (1953) – Blu-ray review

May 20, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Caveat emptor, and then some.  A pair of earrings provides the dazzling fulcrum for Ophüls’ bittersweet romance about the transience of love.

1 Madame De

Madame De…
(Max Ophüls, 1953)

What’s in a gift?  It’s a gesture of love and affection, a memento of times past – yet it can also denote ownership and control.  In Madame De… a pair of earrings take on hugely symbolic importance in mapping out the contours not only of several relationships, but also the society that underpins them.  The earrings are fiendish Macguffins, full of deathly irony and heartbreak in the narrative and emotional havoc they wreak.

Making a film on such a bizarre premise might feel silly and contrived, but there’s such precision to the way Max Ophüls tells it that its coincidences are forgivable.  There’s the sense that these earrings had to come full circle – sold, returned, given away, removed, resold and restored once more – because their place is within the rarefied world of French high society.  Even when they end up in Constantinople, they boomerang back.

That’s because of their initial wearer.  Madame De… has it all, but she’s unhappy.  In the film’s opening shot, she is defined – trapped, even – by her possessions, unable to exist beyond boxes full of jewellery and wardrobes full of furs.  Even when we first see her face, it’s in a mirror – and there still hasn’t been a cut.  Note the name, too.  In an increasingly disconcerting, running joke, we never hear the surname.  It’s cute, it’s funny, and then it’s alarming, because it tells us what the extraordinary, circular camera movements are showing us – she’s a possession, and there’s no escape.

So the earrings become a fleeting symbol of hope and self-expression, and they signal Madame De…’s doom because they bring back a lover.  What follows is a lovely, achingly sweet and sincere pas de deux between Madame De (Danielle Darrrieux) and Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica, whose matinee swoon factor is all the more remarkable considering the actor’s day job as the maker of neo-realist masterpieces like Bicycle Thieves).  As shot and cut, it’s as if they fall in love during one single dance, the camera spinning from one party to the next with seamless elegance – but of course, in going round in circles they’re really going nowhere.

But those telltale earrings have a cruel sense of humour, and soon restore the status imposed by the lady’s husband, the General (Charles Boyer).  Even he’s no simple villain.  Despite the hypocrisy of his objecting to an affair when he’s had at least one himself, he’s also a man who is likewise trapped by his role in this society.  Note that the film only ends when he renounces control of the earrings, the man forever in charge.  It’s at this point that the entire narrative, and even Ophüls’ visual approach, collapse into sudden, elliptical jumps as Madame De’s wheel stops turning.

Madame De… is released on Blu-ray by the BFI on Monday 22 May.  The disc contains a long documentary on Ophüls’ work, plus there’s a great essay booklet featuring the opinions of everyone from esteemed critic Laura Mulvey to filmmaker Lindsay Anderson – and an ace poem in honour of Ophüls by his occasional star James Mason.

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