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Madame de… (Max Ophüls) 1953
There’s an enlightening scene early on Max Ophüls’ Madame de…in which we see the titular character stop to check her appearance in a mirror on her way to church. This small action hints at a sense of vanity that will ultimately prove the downfall of the heroine of what is surely one of the most cruelly tragic, and sublimely funny, melodramas of all time. As Ophüls’ film opens, we watch a graceful tracking shot (the first of many), in which our unnamed heroine (Danielle Darrieux) goes through her belongings, hoping to find one that she can bring herself to part with, in order to offset a debt she’s incurred by overspending. She settles on a pair of earrings that her husband gave to her as a wedding present, and that decision is one that will haunt her for the rest of her life. As the movie proceeds, her reluctance to face financial embarrassment (a silly concern, since her husband could easily absolve her debt) results in a series of humiliations that costs her the adoration of those that love her.
Ophüls spends a lot of time in Madame de… satirizing the peccadilloes of the idle rich. Their lives are an endless procession of parties given without much of a purpose. The manners and social obligations of this world seem to craft a self-made prison, but that feeling of isolation is what allows the love affair at the center of the film to feel as transgressive and exciting as it does. Outbursts of real emotion are rare and shocking in this context, and both lovers take advantage of that general lack of feeling to add excitement to their lives. Nowhere is this made more apparent than in the countless scenes in which Madame de… (her incomplete name suggests she hasn’t yet determined the man who she belongs to) is seen fainting in an exaggerated manner to attract attention and curry favor. At one point, her husband attempts to justify their mutual indiscretions by saying, “Our affair is only superficially superficial,” and it becomes apparent that the veneer of happiness is all that he really desires. The film reaches its deepest levels of profundity when it suggests lies are necessary to sustain a loveless marriage, but downright deadly when they interfere with true love.
Still, Madame de…isn’t really renowned for its emotional observations. Its greatest achievements lie in Ophüls’ masterful direction. The film’s camera is always gracefully gliding: sometimes from room to room, sometimes across time and space. One shot in particular stands out as a refined examination of its characters’ emotional distance. Using an unbroken movement of the camera Ophüls establishes the considerable space between the separate beds that the Madame and her husband sleep in. The cinematography, like the plot, is circular in nature, and the feeling most impressed on the audience, is that the fateful life of the titular lady is a whirling, inevitable blur, like a waltz that never stops. The narrative fluidity of her life slowly becomes tragic because its inertia ensures that the events that eventually happen cannot be stopped. The only comfort that the audience can take when faced with this view of predetermined fate is in enjoying the dazzle of the ride. Ophüls' technical prowess makes this easy to do.
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