DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Earrings of Madame De...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Earrings of Madame De...

The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) dir. Max Ophuls
Starring: Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica, Danielle Darrieux


If it were not for Tim Lott's refreshingly honest article in the UK Guardian a few weeks ago 'The Worst Best Films Ever Made' it might have been difficult justifying this tepid response to Max Ophuls's “Earring of Madame de…” - a film whose respectuation precedes it, as, by the words of Village Voice critic J Hoberman, 'gem-hard, crystalline, and superbly impervious..' Earring" is not a bad film, but it's not impervious to criticism. Even after a couple of viewings, over the span of 10 years I’ve never been as enraptured as say, Mr. Hoberman's high praise.

For the unaware, "The Earrings of Madame de..," tells the agonizingly tragic story of an illicit romance of a Viennese debutante with an Italian baron and her cruel husband who seeks to keep them apart. Madame de (Danielle Darrieux), whose's last name always elludes us, is a erudite woman in an arranged diplomatic marriage, whom we see in the opening scene choosing from her many luxorious items and settling on her diamond earrings to pawn off to pay her debts. Her husband Andre (Charles Boyer) is a philandering military general with a mistress on the side who treats his wife like furniture. Madame's new lover is Baron Donati (Vittoria de Sica), an Italian poltician inexplicably drawn to Madame after first seeing her at the customs border.

Fate drives the two lovers together from Constantinople to Vienna symbolized by Madame's diamond earrings which are coincidentally bought by the Baron and then given back to Madame as a gift. The coincidence of this exchange is key to the film - a metaphor for fate and the hand of a higher power guiding our lives. Perhaps this influenced Paul Thomas Anderson to write 'Magnolia' whose opening sequence discusses at length the nature of chance. Anderson even expresses his admiration for the film in an introduction to the Criterion Collection DVD.

At heart "Madame de..." is a turgid melodrama. Madame is set up as a classic romantic trapped in a loveless marriage - most likely arranged by her aristcratic geneology. And so the experience of love at first sight, especially with the suave and cultured Italian sweeps her off her feet. The social norms of the aristocratic late 19th century period present the hurdle Madame just can't overcome which makes the illicit relationship that much more dangerous.

When the two are apart the swooning music creates a heightened sense of pain and longing for them to be together. When the Baron finally meets up with her upon her return the embrace is as over the top grandeloquent as anything in Hollywood.

All of this is dramatized consciously at a distance from the characters. We never really get to know who the Baron, Madame or the Baron are, and are meant to accept the lovers' random attraction to each other as just that. Fine. The film's reputation seems to be in the technical design. There's the 'tracking shots' and Ophlus's constantly dollying camera which according some critics are par with the work of Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Puh-lease! While I noted a few elaborate moves Olphus has nothing on Kubrick, Welles or even Curtiz. Unfortunately on a 1.33:1 ratioed frame Ophuls' film feels cramped and screams for a cinemascope widescreen process.

There's the revered ballroom montage which looks like one dance but spans several weeks of the lovers' burgeoning relationship. This is clearly influenced by Welles' famous dinner table scene in 'Citizen Kane' which compresses years of a dissolving marriage into a short meal. Ophuls' scene is an obvious and conscious set-up and and lacks any of Welles' cinematic magnificence.

The gentlemanly manners of the period contains all the seething and unspoken tension between the Baron and Andre, but unfortunately the final duel which should have climaxed the film is painfully under-dramatized. In fact, we never even see a shot, or the two fighters squaring off – a missed opportunity to pay off the contrived melodrama with a rousing finale this film needs to have.

So I have be the one to throw a wet blanket on this revered classic. Perhaps if I was impressed by the jewellry, lavishly designed locations, the gowns, the waltsz I might agree with Hoberman, or Andrew Sarris or Roger Ebert, but from these eyes it's a decent romantic costume drama at best. Fire away!

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