This annotation previously appeared in Senses of Cinema, no. 25, Mar–Apr 2003.
Madame de… (1953 France 102 mins)
Source: Film Alliance Prod Co: Franco-London Prod: Ralph Baum, Max Ophuls Dir: Max Ophuls Scr: Marcel Achard, Annette Wademont, Max Ophuls, from the novella by Louise de Vilmorin Ph: Christian Matras Ed: Boris Lewin Mus: Oscar Strauss, George Van Parys
Cast: Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica, Jean Dubucourt, Mireille Perrey, Lisa de Léa
Ophuls was less interested in real things than in their reflections; he liked to film life indirectly, by ‘ricochet.’ For example the first treatment of Madame de…, rejected by the producers, planned that the story, which we all know, be seen entirely in mirrors and on the walls and ceiling. (1)
– François Truffaut
Emerging from the theatre, Max Ophuls entered the German film industry in 1930, with the coming of sound. He worked throughout Europe during the 1930s before arriving as a virtual exile in the United States in 1941. He quickly headed to Hollywood and spent six years without completing a project (though he appears far from bitter about this) and then made four films for three studios in the space of two years. By late 1949 he had left Hollywood – initially to make an American production in Europe – returning to France (his adopted or preferred country) and the production of the four works, alongside 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, upon which much of his subsequent reputation stands.
Madame de… is perhaps the least typical of these final four films, relying less on the overt self-consciousness and playful narrative devices that mark La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952) and Lola Montes (1955). In many ways it is Ophuls’ most subtle tragedy, a rondo of flirtation, coincidence, fate, reflected desire and circumstance that builds to an emotionally devastating climax (a final ‘destination’ which many may find surprising). It is a film of memory and corporeality, in which a pair of continuously traded and exchanged earrings take on an increasingly complex set of meanings and associations (much like the film itself has done, over the years, for many commentators). Despite some initial criticism – though never as harsh as that meted out on his last film Lola Montes – Madame de… has some claim to being Ophuls’ greatest film, and thus one of the great works of world cinema. It is also a film, which like the earrings themselves, requires a degree of self-investment – for both character and audience – in order to gain meaning and true resonance. (2) Although it appears self-consciously as a film of (stereo)types – we never find out the married couple’s surname, for example – the refined embodiment of the three central characters by Danielle Darrieux (Madame de…), Charles Boyer (General Andre de…) and Vittorio de Sica (Baron Fabrizio Donati) represents amongst the greatest ensemble acting in film history, a play of actors playing characters who see themselves as particular types; and who sometimes rail against the roles that a rigid society, and particular characters, have apportioned them.
Ophuls is sometimes written about as a kind of empty formalist, a director who imbues his projects with particular technical (masses of curling camera movement combined with long takes which are then juxtaposed with montage), material (the continual return to ornate items of decor like staircases, ballrooms, frames within frames) and social preoccupations (the ‘impossible’ love of the landed classes), but this says nothing of the sensitivity, sharpness and technical pragmatism (each detail counts) of his films. For example, the long takes and swooning dolly shots contained in the extended dance sequence between Madame de and the Baron say so much about the hedonistic, intoxicated but also out-of-kilter (or excessive) nature of their love. (The sequence’s movement between the initial incandescent illumination and the deepening shadows accompanying the final waltz also telling us much – visually, tonally and emotionally – about the inevitable fate of this union). Similarly, although the ornate rooms and spaces occupied by the characters are meant to express their social position and approximate the chintzy clutter that is often made to constitute the outwards appearances of wealth, they also crowd in and stifle these characters’ attempts at free expression. Although Madame de… does contain some location shot sequences, it is dominated by the artifice and dense symbology that society had draped over the characters. In a very complex and real manner space and objects are made to articulate characters (registering both their presence and absence), their relationships, their material conditions and how we understand them. It is these objects and spaces that are all that are left in the film’s final moments; the in-frame presence of the earrings setting off a complex chain of signification and memories for the audience.
Ophuls’ is a cinema of expressivity (décor, camera movement, lighting, character interaction) that explores the potential of the medium to juggle time, space, actor and narrative in complex patterns. To call his films experimental, as some have, gives no sense of how closely all the elements are tied together (Ophuls is not an abstract filmmaker unless you consider society and the world itself as abstractions). For example, the tracking shots in Madame de… express space in a manner that emphasises its limitations and closedness (the camera continually moves within space to show how closed it ultimately is). Even though several scenes are set in the outdoors – Madame de’s escape to the seaside, for example – these moments have a snatched, sparse quality, and are quickly expended before returning to the clearer limits of the beautifully articulated but entombing interiors. Although a world outside the frame is suggested, one is unsure whether it ‘exists’ or is in fact ‘perceivable’ by the characters. The camera completes circles, moves smoothly and seems only to cover a preordained space (which emphasises entrapment, artifice and a limit to that space). The camera then expresses, almost simultaneously, the objective and the subjective, the situation and the view (though seldom in a directly optical fashion) of the character. The opening shot of Madame de… provides a complex illustration of this process: an extended take, placed just to the side of Madame de’s point of view, shows us the character rummaging through her possessions and providing a kind of inventory of her prized belongings before showing her face, for the first time, in the reflected surface of an in-frame mirror. This shot immediately establishes an attitude of and towards the character, predominantly through the various techniques it has used (the long take, expressive décor, gentle track, and the visage within the mirror placed within the broader frame that we see). Although many aspects of this opening shot may appear lilting and frivolous – the music, the facile object decisions made by the character, the beautiful play of light and shade on the opulent décor – these elements are also integral to the complex development and eventual tragedy of the character’s situation (her willfulness, romanticism and even vanity reclaimed as martyrdom and the embodiment and receptacle of real feeling in the film’s finale).
Of course, Ophuls’ cinema is also quite explicitly (and unforgettably) a cinema of time. Space and time coalesce most obviously in the Ophulsian long take but also coincide in the patterns of repetition, return, repeated actions, revisited space and recurring objects that dominate his work. This emphasis upon time, its bifurcation and fragmentation, and its relationship to character, space, sexuality and social standing is beautifully expressed in Madame de… (though it receives its greatest and most profound treatment in Letter from an Unknown Woman). Although Madame de… is plainly set around the turn of the 19th century its actual time period is never clearly distinguished. There are hints of events which surround the characters, and the passing of time is announced intermittently in the course of the narrative, but the film is defined by a more repetitive, circular and musical sense of time (and timing). In keeping with the incipient social criticism that impels and heightens Ophuls’ work, characters must, in essence, be jettisoned from this sense and experience of non-linear or ‘timeless’ time. The constant turn and return of the earrings in Madame de… plots such patterns of repetition (and play) as well as furthering and retarding a progressive sense of narrative development: this circulation will, ironically, lead to the death of the Baron and Madame de, and the inevitable, socially impelled actions of the General (who reluctantly accepts the role his wife has composed for him). Even the film’s ending – in which a perennially infirm Madame de seems to ‘literally’ die from an excess of love or a broken heart or an inability to face the less performative romanticism of others – can also be collapsed into certain realities and stereotypes pertaining to specific social, cultural and historical conditions.
Ophuls’ ‘period’ films are often misunderstood as gilded reminiscences of a misty, romanticised and nostalgic past, and his common evocation of turn-of-the-century Vienna as a chocolate-box confection (as, in a sense, Ophuls’ fantasy of the time, ‘class’ and continent into which he was born). Yet, Ophuls has always used such romantic trimmings as a means to press real, complex social issues. He also uses the trappings of established, often neglected, genres or forms, to help frame this critique. Ophuls’ characters are trapped by the social systems, ideologies, spaces and times they find themselves in. Many commentators describe Ophuls’ films as flighty, delirious, old-fashioned and exquisitely ornate (they are, of course) but they are also very concrete and specific in their social analysis and critique (even when drawing on recurrent events and situations like embassy balls, the opera, or the duel). Real, worldly escape is virtually impossible for characters in an Ophuls’ film (except, perhaps, in death in Madame de…). Ophuls’ romantic sensibility (is it?) breaks up on the brittleness and harshness of the ‘actual’ world, its social conditions and implied and enforced positions. Madame de suffers most because she finally wants to leave behind the surface frivolity and performative nature of love played out through social convention. She wants to place more value on and investment in such material objects as her earrings – as, in fact, something more than ‘mere’ things – objects which now express or trigger a litany of memories, betrayals, forgotten, possible and impossible emotions.
Throughout Ophuls’ cinema characters sacrifice their lives for the well-being and stability of others, as well as of society. The key to Madame de…, and the heart of its tragedy, lies in characters who brush the possibilities of freedom that society then rules untenable (but, fatally, this society forms on the inside as much as the outside of the characters). These social structures emerge as fundamentally undisturbable: observe Madame de…‘s final track into the earrings now placed on ‘sacred’ display in a church which replicates the movement – and implication? – of the film’s opening shot. As in many of Ophuls’ films, a somewhat reserved sense of despair grips the film’s characters, a despair elevated to state of “enchanted sadness” that is the defining tone of Ophuls’ greatest work. (3) This sadness has a beautiful, muted melancholy, but it never absolves or obscures the potent social critique that incessantly churns beneath, and even on the surface of Madame de….
- François Truffaut, The Films in My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978) 232.
- In Philip Nobile’s book Favorite Movies: Critics’ Choices (New York: Macmillan, 1973) both Molly Haskell and Peter Harcourt select Madame de… as their favourite film. Kathleen Murphy has also written eloquently on the emotional impact of the film at a particular juncture in her life: “Madame de… and The Scarlet Empress,” Film Comment 29.4 (July–August 1993).
- John Halliday, “Max Ophuls,” Cinema. A Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-makers, ed. Richard Roud (New York: Viking Press, 1980) 734.