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For those of us who rank The Earrings of Madame de . . . at the top of our list of all-time favorite films, the mystery is why our passion isn’t universally shared. Every year, thanks to committed revival houses, new members are recruited to our cult, but Ophuls’s masterpiece never seems to attain the universal accolade of “greatness” automatically granted to movies like The Godfather or Citizen Kane. To most people, “great” means big, inescapably masculine and bold, and probably Important with a capital I.
This in turn implies an effort with a socially redeeming political or quasi-political ambition, a dissection (and, often covertly, a celebration) of the ways of powerful men. Is Ophuls left off of those lists because the German-born director and man of the world made films about women, and in the case of 1953’s The Earrings of Madame de . . . , a period film about an upper-class woman whose cushioned existence is light-years away from that of the ordinary people of contemporary cinema and the toilers on the margins of life? The “woman’s film” label shouldn’t be a handicap in this day and age, as it was in the early sixties, when critic Richard Roud defended Ophuls with faint praise in a monograph: “What are Ophuls’s subjects? The simplest answer is: women. More specifically, women in love. Most often, women who are unhappily in love, or to whom love brings misfortune of one kind or another.” Ophuls’s star rose during the cultural revolution of the late sixties and early seventies, when auteurist and feminist critics elevated the woman’s film along with such culturally underrated genres as the gangster film and the western. Yet even in this reappraisal, the “guy films” got more respect.
In my own appreciation at the time, I called the Ophulsian heroines by Stendhal’s epithet, the “militarists of love.” They are the adventurers, the risk takers, like the Stendhal heroines celebrated by Simone de Beauvoir:
The so-called serious man is really futile, because he accepts ready-made justifications for his life; whereas a passionate and profound woman revises established values from moment to moment. She knows the constant tension of unsupported freedom; it puts her in constant danger; she can win or lose all in an instant. It is the anxious assumption of this risk that gives her story the colors of a heroic adventure. And the stakes are the highest there are: the very meaning of existence.
Thanks to the cataclysm of love that descends on her, Danielle Darrieux’s Madame de . . . becomes the “passionate and profound woman,” but Ophuls doesn’t accept the “serious man,” with his “ready-made justifications,” at face value. Ophuls’s men are as important as his women. One of the movie’s great epiphanies is the lifting of the veil of convention and self-defense to reveal the heart of the military man and husband played by Charles Boyer. Even Ophuls’s Hollywood films, which hew more closely to the conventions of genre, go far beyond the formulaic (and soothing) pattern in which the suffering female is front and center, with men serving as appendages and spear-carriers (generally relegated to one of two types: the swine who abuses the heroine, the patsy who comforts her). Memorable in their own right are such male leads as Robert Ryan and James Mason in Caught (1949), Mason the same year in The Reckless Moment, and even Louis Jourdan in 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. In the Ophulsian universe, men and women occupy separate but equal spheres, and if the men have more power and agency in the world, the women are the conquistadors in the more important realm of the heart.
The Earrings of Madame de . . . , beginning in the lilting superficiality of a frivolous woman looking to pawn her jewels and ending in death and the ironic sanctification of those jewels, is Ophuls at his bleakest and most beautiful. The very opulence and swirl of the world from which Madame de . . . is ostracizing herself—the opera, the gowns, the balls, the jewels, the servants—will be stripped away as love burns through the outer layers of life. A woman is rescued from shallowness and inauthenticity, but at what a price!
If, like the works of the writers and composers he admired—Arthur Schnitzler, Stendhal, Mozart—his films are given over to the contemplation of love in all its permutations, love as the crowning glory of human sentiment, Ophuls is nevertheless the least sentimental of directors. A harsh streak of irony, of fate closing in like a noose, underlies his vision, a sense not just of the delights but of the penalties of desire. Regret, a nostalgia for lost innocence, and mutability are the recurrent themes. “Life is . . . so terribly short,” says a character in La ronde (1950).
For Ophuls it certainly was. Born Maximilian Oppenheimer in Germany in 1902, he died there in 1957, after the very public failure in Paris of Lola Montès (1955). As a young man, he went into the theater, acting first—without great success—then directing. The surname Ophuls, taken to spare his family the embarrassment of his chosen métier, was, depending on which version you believe, either a capricious stab at inventing aristocratic forebears or a director friend’s whimsical choice in memory of a once beloved Danish actress of that name. Films followed the theater, and Ophuls wound up directing movies in Germany, Italy, France, and the United States. He brought to his American films an elegant cosmopolitanism and his own feeling for the nuances of male-female relationships, but it was in France, his favorite country and the setting for his greatest films, that his spirit took root.
“He gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of cinema,” wrote critic Andrew Sarris, an early champion. Ophuls was so famous for his fluid cinematography that James Mason wrote an affectionate poem beginning “A shot that does not call for tracks is agony for poor old Max.” But the roving camera and the visual glissandos were never virtuoso flourishes for their own sake; they were always attached to the movements of characters and revelatory of the movements of their souls.
Shakespeare’s Rosalind utters the famous lines “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” But in Ophuls’s films, people do die for love. There are duels, and there are suicides and near suicides, and even when characters don’t die for love, love dies. In one of the three Guy de Maupassant–derived stories of Le plaisir (1952), a rejected model jumps out of a window and winds up in a wheelchair. The artist, now forcibly married to her, and with plenty of time to work, voices the bitter aphorism “There’s no joy in happiness.”
Change is the principle of life—without it there is no life—but change itself is a kind of death. The fearless cross the line, transgress the rules, but at their peril. Shopgirls and society women, parlor maids and prostitutes, and the men who variously scorn, love, and try to own them, all are in danger of suddenly finding themselves outside the well-worn tracks of class and caste. These are the conventions by which they have lived, and by which flirtation and desire have been contained, and without them they drop into a terrifying and exhilarating void where they may be reborn but also crushed.
Ophuls gravitated to the plays of Schnitzler and his fin de siècle Vienna—the clash of worldliness and innocence, the unshocked view of philandering—but he injected into them deeper feelings of love and tenderness, turning Schnitzler’s brittle world of unbridgeable class differences into settings where passion can dissolve boundaries. In Liebelei (1932), a simple working-class girl falls in love with a dashingly handsome ladies’ man and officer, but he falls in love with her too. Hearing of his death in a duel, the girl throws herself out of a window and dies. Earlier, on a moonlit carriage ride through a snow-covered cemetery, the lovers tried to stop time, but time can’t be stopped. In La ronde, possibly his most charming and melodious examination of love, Ophuls adds a narrator (Anton Walbrook) to stand in as surrogate for the viewer, to introduce and intervene (at one point even acting as censor, snipping an X-rated scene from a strip of celluloid). Though each set of lovers in La ronde’s dominolike chain of seduction (prostitute meets soldier, soldier seduces maid, maid has a crush on the young gentleman, who in turn falls passionately for the married woman, and so on) is charming and unique, the relentless rotation of the carousel conveys something impersonal and interchangeable, an uncannily modern vision of men and women “hooking up” across class lines. In a conclusion not in Schnitzler’s play, Simone Signoret’s hands reflexively go to her neck when the count leans over her, a gesture of self-protection against the strangulation that every prostitute fears. Although some reviewers criticized Ophuls for softening Schnitzler’s hard edges, the tremor of shock in that moment opens the window on a reality that is both harsher and more compassionate than Schnitzler’s, more tender and less cynical.
Ophuls understood that while plays can keep their Brechtian distance, movies need an emotional pull. He provided this with his extraordinary casts, ensembles so supple and smooth it was as if they’d been working together for years. The actors of La ronde: Signoret, Walbrook, Gérard Philipe, Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Darrieux, Daniel Gélin, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Isa Miranda. (The lack of this kind of cast is no doubt one of the reasons that Ophuls’s controversial last film, Lola Montès, a feast of widescreen visual and amorous delights, with the wooden Martine Carol as the famous showgirl-courtesan on display, was booed when it premiered in Paris and has tested the patience of buffs and general audiences ever since.) Of course, the heartbreaking trio of The Earrings of Madame de . . .—Darrieux, Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica—are beyond perfection. As, respectively, Madame de . . . ; her military husband, the count; and Baron Donati, the ambassador, they come to embody a double past, the period of the film they inhabit and the glorious past of cinema itself—a romantic cinema now shot through with gloomy foreboding.
The source of The Earrings of Madame de . . . is a 1951 novel by Louise de Vilmorin called simply Madame de, an elliptical tale of a society lady who, in pawning the earrings given her by her husband, sets off a chain of circumstances that, when she falls desperately in love, tightens around her and destroys her. It’s a minor work of social portraiture, leaning heavily on coincidence and irony. The screenplay, by Ophuls, Marcel Achard, and Annette Wademant, is richer. Amplifying the story almost beyond recognition, it’s a masterwork of succinct exposition and expressive dialogue, phrases reiterated but with different meanings.
The woman we see at the beginning of The Earrings of Madame de . . . —or rather the hand, the skirt, eventually the reflection in a mirror—is, like Lola Montès, imprisoned in her own self-display, a charming narcissist who hums as her hand skims restlessly over the surface of her jewels, a cross, furs, looking for something to pawn, alighting as she considers first the earrings (a wedding gift from her husband), then the gold cross, her furs (“I’m too fond of them”); she wishes her mother were alive to tell her what to do. A Bible falls from among the furs, and she picks it up (“I need that more than ever”). Almost every action in the first half of the film will have its double in the second half, where the opposite meaning will be expressed.
The decision to pawn the earrings, which in itself tells us how little the woman values her husband, and the cover-up between the count and the jeweler set in motion a fateful journey—for the earrings, for the three main characters. As the artifacts fall into different hands (from the count to his parting mistress, from a pawnbroker in Constantinople to the baron, from the baron back to Madame de . . .), they acquire radically different and deeper meanings. It looks, at first, like one of those charming daisy chains of seduction and happenstance, like the encounters in La ronde, until her passion for the breathtakingly handsome baron plunges Madame de . . . into a vortex for which her shallow existence provides no frame of reference.
In the film’s famous collagelike ballroom scene, in which Madame de . . . and her newest “suitor,” Donati, waltz in one continuous motion across the weeks and into the depths of love, the phrase “The news is excellent” occurs as a leitmotif between the two dancers. It is uttered by Madame de . . . , first seriously, then ironically, in reply to Donati’s inquiry about her absent husband’s health, and indicates both the passage of time and the growth of intimacy. The last time it is used in the film, it is Boyer who echoes the phrase, reassuring his wife that Donati is well after his fall from a horse. “I know,” she replies, using the words Donati used in their last exchange.
This fall from a horse, and more importantly her fainting from fear as she watches, is itself a symbolic marker in the progression of unruly passion. Madame de . . . is known for her little fainting spells; no one takes them seriously, and like her flirtations with men (dying of hope, as her husband rather proudly describes them), they are seen as one of her charms. She is the star of her little world, and when Donati first arrives in Paris, hostesses everywhere seat them together, predicting with a kind of fatuous sophistication that they are “made for each other.” Society, like a movie audience, worships its stars, is fascinated by new and exciting pairings, but the couple is popular only as long as they play their assigned roles. They titillate but shouldn’t challenge or destroy existing rules. So when Madame de . . . loses consciousness for a half minute longer than usual, scandal ensues. She has not only fallen in love—already bad form—but also compromised her own and her husband’s honor. Seemingly at the pinnacle of her society, she is, in Tolstoyan fashion, least free, the generalissima whose fate is determined by the rules and decisions, the habits and patterns of a thousand below her in the hierarchy. Ophuls’s complex pattern of camera movements—rapturous, lyrical pans and tracks and occasional sudden swings, within a larger, strictly observed symmetrical system—reflects the paradox of Madame de . . .’s social situation and, on a larger scale, the mystery of free will and determinism.
If she enacts the primal conflict of tragedy, the individual against society, in one sense she has been outside society all along. The spoiled and petted child-woman of the beginning of the film is no more in touch with reality than the mystically redeemed saint at the end. And when, in her passion for the baron—loving him, then losing him—she turns her back on society, it is not just its luxuries and ornaments she rejects but its premises: her role as wife and mother. This is clear in the scene in which the count takes her to the country house, teeming with the children of his poor relations, and forces her to make a gift of the earrings to a niece who has just given birth. Madame de . . . tosses the earrings to the young woman and, in a touchingly humorous gesture, hastens to the crib, where she makes a pretense of admiring the baby to hide her grief—the baby arouses no more feeling in her than a bird or an insect, the product of a cycle of nature in which she wants no part.
Oscar Straus’s lovely score adjusts itself, without breaking stride, from the rapturous lilt of the waltz to the wistful and finally desolate strains of loss. Along with the music, the landscape becomes more spartan. The ripe little beauty from the early part of the film becomes physically wasted. In her agonizing and comical last encounter with De Sica, she has rushed to warn him about the duel, knowing he no longer loves her but still daring to hope. “I’m not even pretty anymore,” she says sadly. “You’re prettier than ever,” he replies. “Really?” Her eyes light up, with a coquetry that shows how much she is still herself. Then as quickly, “I’m incorrigible,” she confesses, with an awareness that shows just how far she has come. And it also measures just how far Darrieux has come, from a doll-like ingenue in her early films to an actor capable of giving this complex performance; she’s searing, ruthless, and, yes, more beautiful than ever.
Yet even as we sympathize with her, we take in Boyer’s barely spoken agony as the count. This military man, so used to hiding his feelings and having control, urges his inconsolable wife back to health with a desperate cheer, his wit, his concern, his love—all lost on her. Their divided bedroom, in which they call to each other from separate spaces—cavernous but luxurious—beautifully renders the nature of their marriage, the way they have forced each other into formal roles now only tragedy can shatter.
He has been suave in the crisis, smoothing the way after each of his wife’s faux pas, tending to her in her distress, patient with her self-indulgences, officially gallant and wry about her many suitors. But in a sudden, piercing revelation—“I’m not particularly fond of the person you’ve made me out to be”—we see into the heart of a marriage that is better than she will ever understand, or in the count’s immortal words, “only superficially superficial.”
Even as Madame de . . . is ennobled by her love, she retains some of the myopia and weakness of her former self. The brutal lesson of her suffering teaches her nothing of the misery her husband endures loving her, and brings only the slightest understanding of the blows to integrity and the count’s love her “little lies” have dealt. The gallant baron’s humiliation and the mute agony in Donati’s deep brown eyes: these are the great soul spectacles of The Earrings of Madame de . . . , the final resting place to which the swirling, restless camera of Ophuls’s masterpiece has inevitably led us.
Molly Haskell is a film critic and author who has written and lectured widely on film and the roles of women. Her books include From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies; Love and Other Infectious Diseases: A Memoir; Frankly, My Dear: “Gone with the Wind” Revisited; and the forthcoming memoir My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation (September 2013). She has taught at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Sarah Lawrence College; served as film critic for New York magazine and Vogue; and written for many other publications. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2008 DVD release of The Earrings of Madame de . . . .