Saturday, September 01, 2007


Jewel of denial

By Edward Copeland
Sometimes the simplest of stories can result in the greatest of films and that's certainly the case of Max Ophuls' Madame de… or The Earrings of Madame de…, whichever title you prefer.

The copy I finally got to see thanks to a film friend calls the film Madame De…, so that's the one I'm going with (besides, it's shorter). Many times, when you've heard great things about a film for so long, it almost raises the stakes too high once you finally see it. Thankfully, this is not the case with Madame de… which more than deserves its reputation.

Ophuls (along with Marcel Achard and Annette Wademant) adapted Louise de Vilmorin's novel with efficiency, grace and class, spinning its simple tale of a love triangle into something so much more. At one point in the film, the general (Charles Boyer) tells his wife Countess Louise (Danielle Darrieux) what Napoleon once said about love: The only way to win is to retreat. It is a lesson that none of the points of the movie's romantic entanglements seem to grasp.

Affairs of the heart aren't what first set things in motion in Madame de…, it's debt, namely that of the countess. Desperate for funds to pay off bills, Louise pawns the sometimes-titular earrings, a gift from the general on their wedding day. Unfortunately, the jeweler (Jean Debucourt) who buys the earrings is not a man of discretion and tells the general about what his wife did after she's faked losing them (or having them stolen) during a trip to the opera.

The dutiful husband buys them back, presumably to return to his wife, only instead he sends them off to Constantinople with his mistress. Unfortunately for the general, his mistress is as bad with finances as his wife and she too is forced to sell the jewelry, which returns to Austria yet again, this time in the possession of a diplomat, Baron Donati (played by the great director Vittorio De Sica). Soon, the baron not only wants to return the earrings to their original owner, but he finds himself falling for her as well.

Ophuls' direction moves Madame de… smoothly from start to finish, with exquisite sets and fine acting by the three leads. It's interesting to hear Boyer speak in his native French and Darrieux, still acting at the age of 90, perfectly portrays the arc of the countess from desperation to lovestruck to frantic to destroyed and back again.

De Sica is such a legend for his own films, it's easy to forget his extensive acting credits (including an Oscar nomination for 1957's A Farewell to Arms) and he's great here as well.

At another point in the film, the general tells his wife that "unhappiness is an invented thing." I don't know if that's really true, but Ophuls' Madame de… is one invented thing that certainly didn't inspire sadness in this film lover.

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Did you see it on VHS? Is it available? I know there's supposedly an Ophuls box coming out this year, but this is a film I've long wanted to see, and your review only makes me more interested.
A friend of mine made me a DVD copy from his older DVD copy, which I guess is not available unless you pay for a used copy.
Since the film has never been released on DVD and hasn't, I would assume your friend made his original copy from a VHS (which is how I have mine). There's PAL format dvd in the UK, but that wouldn't play on American dvd players.
I saw this on the big screen twice, once at the old Theatre 80 St Marks (am I the only geezer who still misses that place in its film-palace incarnation?) and recently at Film Forum. It is so exquisitely beautiful--the scene where de Sica and Darrieux waltz together makes my heart seize up every time. And yet it is quite funny as well, especially in the dry, cynical wit of Boyer's character--which makes his gentle, understated pleading with his wife toward the end all the more heartbreaking.

Josh, my desire to have my own Ophuls DVDs is a big part of why I have a region-free DVD player. The British versions are very good transfers, if lacking in lavish extras. I do hear that Criterion is planning a box set, I hope that is more than a rumor.
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