Monday, December 6, 2010

A few things about the Earrings of Madame de...: Chance, Objects, Lightness

Once you’ve fallen under the spell of the great yet often forgotten Max Ophüls it can become difficult to decide which of his films is best, but so many have argued so convincingly for The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) that I feel little compulsion to contest the consensus. Moving between Paris, Constantinople and the French countryside, concerning an affair between a French general’s wife and an Italian baron, the film is something of a love triangle, as well as one of cinema’s most elegant essays on chance. “Coincidence,” one of its characters tells us, “is only extraordinary because it’s so natural.” Indeed, there’s something strangely inevitable about the journey undertaken by our unnamed heroine’s earrings, first sold to remedy a mounting debt, then sold back clandestinely to her spouse, then bestowed upon a mistress sent off to a faraway country, then lost in a gambling binge, then purchased by a traveling aristocrat, then returned to France and… Like the sublimely fluid camera work for which Ophüls is famous, you get to feeling these objects could go anywhere, never rushing, yet never still.

The first images we see in the film are of our heroine’s many things. She surveys, assesses, strokes them, trying to decide which is least essential. Objects and desire are ceaselessly aligned in
Madame de… Some, such as our heroine’s dance card, which is promptly filled by her not-so-secret lover, become fleeting talismans or symbols of what’s to come: the acceleration of the lovers’ flirtation is conveyed through a montage in which they close down multiple dancing parties. Aptly, many of the film’s most conspicuous objects are employed to enhance seeing, such as a monocle, or a tiny telescope mounted on a staff. Nonetheless, objects finally prove meaningless. Gesture becomes everything. A prayer, a fainting spell, a challenge to a duel: these actions are invested with meanings that alter the characters’ lives, until the opulence surrounding them withers in significance.

Danielle Darrieux plays our heroine with such a puzzling blend of conviction and coquetry that only those inclined to dismiss her on account of her elite status can remained unmoved by her emotional maelstrom or unintrigued by her mystery, something written into the very ellipses of the film’s title. Her husband, played by Charles Boyer, is similarly contradictory, tender and remote, amorous and stoic. Played by Vittorio De Sica, the baron, a foreigner, a visitor to their social circle, is necessarily less ambiguous. He must make his intentions clear from his first glimpse of Darrieux, but his charisma, like his barely disguised swoon, possesses its own richness. (De Sica the Italian neo-realist director is far more important to film history, but may I suggest that De Sica the occasional actor is more seductive.) These performances attract marvel not only for the pleasure found in the actors’ graceful transitions from placidity to torment, but for their perfect alignment with Ophuls’ gliding, fundamentally weightless approach to melodrama. Lightness is absolutely essential to Ophuls’ methodology. The film addresses tumultuous emotions without ever succumbing to tumult itself, allowing us to be swept along without being dragged under by heavy-handed sentiment. There’s a moment when torn letters become falling snow, and this, perhaps more than any other gesture in
Madame de…, represents the film’s spirit, those fragments of feelings expressed and sent out into the world, only to become the lightest flecks of moisture caught in the wind, before finally disappearing into the shifting landscape.

The Earrings of Madame de... screens at Edmonton's Metro Cinema this weekend.

No comments: