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85 The Earrings of Madame De... 
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Post 85 The Earrings of Madame De...
Max Ophuls The Earrings of Madame De... is a good film, although probably not the 85th greatest one ever made. Its greatest strength, and in many ways its only mistake, is the lightness with which it treats its mood. It begins a piece of opulent fluff, all gorgeous tracking shots of gorgeous people in gorgeous places wearing gorgeous things. Then, suddenly, we have a great romance, before ending on a rather low-key tragedy, all with just smidgen of social satire mixed in. It's always nice to be surprised by a film that has the confidence to think its viewers will flow along the stream of moods with the film, but it also speaks to the film's greatest weakness: the middle section is by-far the strongest section. I don't need to tell anyone who's seen Letter From an Unknown Woman that Ophuls is great with predetermined-to-fail romances, and Madame de...'s middle is no exception. In a short period of time the film gets to be as opulent, tragic, and romantic as it wants to be, energized with the feeling of a close, unbreakable affair. This section is defined by the sequence that begins it, where Madame de and her lover, an Italian diplomat played by Bicycle-Thieves director Vittorio de Sica, dance through a series of parties, each one becoming less formal, their conversations becoming shorter and also less formal, until they're thoroughly, completely in love, the camera tracking them through each party as it happens.

Of course, this section only takes up a short section of the film, and when it's not going on is also when most of the film's content is spit forth. We begin with Madame de selling the earrings her husband gave her for their wedding. Then, through a series of coincidences, the husband finds out about the earrings, buys them back, gives them to his mistress, who gambles them away in Constantinople, before they're bought back by de Sica, who later gives the earrings back to Madame de after they've fallen in love. This short of circular logic to fate is one of the film's more unique quality, and Ophuls reflects it in his filmmaking, repeating shots from the beginning of the film at the end but completely changing their meaning to fit the changes in the plot. Madame de tries her earrings on at the film's beginning and looks bored of them, then tries them on after de Sica gives them to her and looks ravished. Madame de's husband sends his mistress away looking quite pleased of himself, then later sends Madame de away after having learned of her affair looking defeated and furious. Madame de makes an offering to Mary to make sure her earrings get sold, thinking the whole thing quite frivolous, then later prays to have de Sica's life sparred as if, well, as if her lover's life depended on it. Other than the tracking shots and all the upper-upper-class aristocracy porn on display, it's Madame de's most consistent and interesting aesthetic feature.

Of course, the idea that Madame de is being punished for selling the earrings gives away to one of the film's subtle undercutting of the upper-class. Namely, that they're all a bunch of shallow, image-obsessed buffons (note how in the shots I described above, the character's change from thinking everything's a grand ol' time to being deeply concerned about what's happening). My favorite detail in the film, in this regard, is how the Madame's husband, after learning of the affair, never actually says that Madame de was cheating on him outright, instead speaking of it like it's a minor annoyance. By the same note, the first time we hear Madame de or de Sica say "I love you," it's Madame de saying "I don't love you" in an attempt to convince herself she really doesn't. It's a neat, quite serious detail for a film that too often seems to float instead of show.

And there, in that last sentence, is my qualm with Madame de...: on first viewing, the whole doesn't really seem to come together, the film establishing targets and knocking them down without ever showing the arrow flying. It is, in sections, an absolutely wondrous piece of work, but it's all, no matter how circular, a little disconnected from itself, like its characters from each other. This is, perhaps, appropriate: no matter who many times it skewers the upper class, this is a film firmly in their camp, with little thought to looking out. There's certainly value in that, but sometimes that value can get lost in the shuffle. 8/10, because no matter its problems I still admired the hell out of it.

Wed Jul 13, 2011 11:03 pm
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