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Madame de...
cast: Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio de Sica, and Charles Boyer

director: Max Ophüls

96 minutes (U) 1953
Second Sight DVD Region 2 retail
[released 18 September]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
A classic love story that's infused with passion, despair and revenge, Madame de... is another superb offering from celebrated French director Max Ophüls. The story begins with the Countess, Louise (Danielle Darrieux), selling a pair of earrings in order to pay off debts, though she does not disclose this to her husband (Charles Boyer). Instead, she pretends that she has lost the earrings, and hopes that this will be the end of the matter. This turns out to be far from the case, however, and so begins a series of events that involve Louise embarking on an affair with Italian Baron, Donati (Vittorio de Sica), while her husband simmers with cloaked anger and resentment.

The film's plot isn't exactly groundbreaking, yet its nuances give it greater complexity - there are no screaming matches or threatening gestures between the characters, and the perceived importance of respectability within high society is prevalent throughout. Consequently, the earrings are more than mere objects; they become pawns in a power struggle and are infused with meanings that the characters do not feel that they can express outright. The performances also play a part in this: Boyer puts forth a stoic persona throughout the film, and he and De Sica react to each other in a formal, gentlemanly manner, even though they are both clearly aware of the situation. However, this sense of concealment is most obvious in the relationship between husband and wife, especially in the case of the Count's insistence that his wife give away the earrings. Again, there are no overt threats or accusations spoken yet the Count's meaning is plain to see and is all the more effective in that it is never referred to directly.

What's most striking about this film is its visual flair: the sets and costumes are particularly sumptuous, and Ophüls exhibits a painterly eye in the film's many memorable and evocative shots. One scene, for example, sees Louise tearing up a letter and throwing the pieces from the window of a train, whereupon they flutter in the wind before turning to snow falling across the landscape. In addition to such whimsical, fairytale moments, Ophüls also excels in his presentation of elegant melancholy, and the scene in which we see Louise walking along a beach epitomises this: wrapped in a black cloak that serves as a stark contrast with her porcelain skin, Louise appears as a ghostly figure, with the beating of the waves against the shoreline reflecting the anguish that's concealed behind her expressionless veneer. A similarly stark shot occurs towards the end of the film when Louise again appears clad in black as she stands on a hilltop against a background of barren trees and a bleached out sky. Images such as these showcase the power of black and white cinematography, and the visual contrast adds to the sense of tragic beauty while eliminating any possibility of garishness.

Camerawork tends to figure highly in any discussion of Ophüls' films, and Madame de... uses the director's trademark fluid style to great effect. This is especially the case in the scenes that feature Louise and Donati dancing, in which the camera moves back and forth with them for a lengthy period of time. The viewer therefore feels drawn into the scene (something that a static shot would not have achieved so effectively) and gets a strong sense of the heady feelings associated with newfound love. The score also adds to the elegance of the film and compliments its emotional content, with lush string instrumentals emphasising the intensity of love at its most blissful and its most tragic. Add elements such as costume and set design to this, and one is left with an appreciation of the production's harmonious nature.

Ophüls' career includes many recognised classics and so singling out one film as worthy of attention is virtually impossible. However, for anyone who wishes to become acquainted with the director's work, Madame de... is certainly a good place to start: timeless, beautiful, and lovingly crafted, this is classic cinema at its finest.

DVD extras: The 25-minute featurette Working With Max Ophüls features Alain Jessua (perhaps best known as the director of the 1979 film Les Chiens) recalling his time spent as an assistant on the set of Madame de... He clearly has great admiration for Ophüls and looks back fondly on the experience, describing the mutually respectful relationship that existed between director and cast/crew and providing insight into Ophüls' style of directing. The other DVD extra is a video essay by film historian Tag Gallagher, featuring a dissection of various scenes. It won't be of interest to all viewers and doesn't provide in-depth analysis, but it serves as a decent primer for anyone interested in the basics of film studies.
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