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The Ophuls Maneuver:
The Earrings of Madame De...

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Danielle Darrieux in Earrings of Madame De? / Courtesy of Film Forum

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Earrings of Madame De… (1953)
Directed by Max Ophüls
Showing at Film Forum in New York City through 3/29

Reviewed by James Hughes

An electric eye — that was the conclusion of cinematographer Gregg Toland during a bull session with Orson Welles about the limitations of shooting on film. As Welles recounts in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1992 oral history, This Is Orson Welles, he asked Toland, “Isn’t it basically ridiculous that film is in the camera?” Toland replied, “Yes. Eventually it will be a kind of electric eye. We won’t be carrying the film around, just the lens.” Welles, a proponent of fluid camera work, was pleased by the notion. “[This] will certainly come,” Welles said. “Then you’ll have camera movements that will erase Max Ophüls from living memory.”

One thing is certain: Critics are assuring that the memory of the great German-born director Max Ophüls (1902-1957), will never be erased, nor will the technical and emotional achievements of his 1953 masterpiece, The Earrings of Madame De…. A rallying cry has pierced the earlobes of the New York film community, and it’s centered on the restored print of Madame currently running at Film Forum. (Madame will branch out to theaters in Amherst, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Seattle and more throughout the spring.) Anthony Lane of The New Yorker accepts death as the lone excuse for missing it. In the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris left little room for interpretation with his headline — “The Greatest Film of All Time” — and even tipped his cap to the late Pauline Kael, who dubbed the film “perfection.” The highest-carat rave, however, remains courtesy of Dave Kehr, who has mused in the past that Madame may perhaps be “one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands.” Projectionists, take note!

There is truth to the praise. From the moment the Gaumont crest blazes across the screen, the viewer is swept into a dream world — in reality, Paris of the early 1900s — where incriminating love letters torn and scattered from a train window dissolve into snowflakes and dancing partners are reserved in a leather-bound appointment book at the lip of a ballroom floor. Two of those dancers are Madame Louise De… (her full name is never revealed) and Baron Fabrizio Donati (portrayed by the impossibly dapper Vittorio De Sica), who are trapped in a forbidden love affair. Louise (Danielle Darrieux) is the wife of a controlling general (Charles Boyer, post-Gaslight) who hovers on the edge of earshot whenever the two lovers exchange veiled affections — even under his own rococo roof.

Content to the point of smugness, the general confines his wife to the life of a lonely materialist — the film famously opens on a tracking shot of Louise’s closet as she takes inventory — and she remains so heartbroken, she routinely suffers fainting spells, despite being on horseback. Louise is revitalized when a pair of earrings she pawned for pocket money return to her as a gift from the baron. (Rarely has a prop been tracked and exploited with such pinpoint accuracy.) As the earrings pass from hand to hand, they become a key into the self-serving and tragic nature of the love triangle. As Ophüls described it: “There is always the same axis around which the action continually turns, like a carousel. A tiny, scarcely visible axis: a pair of earrings.”

Such movement is what influenced a young Stanley Kubrick, whose visual structure — graceful tracking shots and medium coverage punctured by rare but arresting inserts — is a descendant of Ophüls. (A real-life descendant, son Marcel Ophüls, is the director of several documentaries, including The Sorrow and the Pity.) A side-by-side comparison of the ballroom sequences in Madame and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (based on a novel by Arthur Schnitzler, as was Ophüls’s 1950 film La Ronde) would be startling, especially in the resemblance between the slow-dancing suitors played by De Sica and Sky Dumont, “the Hungarian.” (Naturally for both guests, there are tuxedoed men flanking the corners, ready to assist with every doorknob.) When asked to name his favorite filmmakers in an interview in the mid-Fifties, Kubrick offered this appropriately monolithic quote: “Highest of all I would rate Max Ophüls, who for me possesses every possible quality.” It is such ambiguous but whole-hearted praise that Ophüls’s work continues to elicit.

Tempting as it is for some to clutch The Earrings of Madame De… close, or treat it like a secret handshake detected by only a vanguard of devotees, the re-release, albeit limited, presents an opportunity to stress the universality of the film’s themes, and its closest admirers have heeded the call. Each recommendation is reminiscent of a line spoken by the owner of the jewelry store, the character who enables the carousel to keep spinning by tipping off others that the earrings have resurfaced: “Discretion is part of our profession.”


Quick views
New Yorker: Anthony Lane, "Practice to Deceive"
NYO: Andrew Sarris, "The Greatest Movie of All Time"
NYT: Dave Kehr, "Follow the Earrings, and Find the Mystery Woman"

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