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Madame De (1953) Max Ophuls

August 7, 2013


Despite having this on DVD it has sat unwatched for a while. I’m not a huge fan of costume drama or melodrama, have only recently started to explore Charles Boyer’s American work, and unfortunately not seen anything else by Ophuls or Italian neo-realist director De Sica who here plays the second male lead. Thankfully it was then shown at Chapter Arts in Cardiff and, having a few ideas of the strengths of Ophul’s work I felt it would be better to experience it on the big screen.

This was evidently the right choice from the very first scene. A wonderful swooping tracking shot that follows Danielle Darrieux’s eye from jewellery drawer to fur cupboard and then follows her, seemingly in the same take, around her mansion, down flights of stairs, into rooms, back again, through windows and doors. Never losing her from the centre of the screen, connecting you to her but making you admire the shot at the same time. The movie does this again and again, what must have been painfully constructed takes that have the camera floating around corners and looking down stairwells, somehow making you notice the take but also grounding you in the architecture, putting you in those buildings and making them seem lived in and more than sets. Taking you out of and into the movie at the same time.

The most heralded scenes are probably the dancing ones where the camera moves incredibly gracefully but very forcefully through the dance floor, after most of these movements the film has a character, boyer or an extra, try to make their own way back through the crowd, having to pause and apologise and bump into the dancers that the camera had weaved through so effortlessly. Again Ophuls isn’t content with just to provide beauty onscreen but wants you to acknowledge how hard it was to achieve.


I can’t imagine that would have worked for me on DVD in my living room. I also can’t imagine it would have quite got across the use of candle light. Of candle light reflected on diamonds. Ophuls apparently wanted to shoot the movie entirely via what was seen in mirrors and while the idea did not come to fruition reflection still plays a massive part in many of the shots. Critics often talk about the beauty of black and white cinematography but this really is a film that delivers it. In colour it really would have seemed like just a costume drama to me. Here the blacks and whites but more importantly the strangely pastel greys have an odd warmth, everything feels smudged and shot through lace.

The movie follows a pair of earrings, an unwanted wedding gift of a loveless (at least on one side) marriage, sold by Louise the general’s wife to clear debts and then claimed to have been stolen. The jeweller secretly sells them back to the General, who passes them on a disposed of mistress, who, heartbroken, wilfully loses them at roulette in a Turkish casino. They are bought by an Italian diplomat, De Sica, who brings them back to Paris and eventually presents them to his new lover, Louise. Who, desperate to wear them for her lover, claims to have found them in a drawer not knowing her husband was well aware of her selling them. The General, Charles Boyer’s relationship with the earrings and particularly the Jeweller provides a lot of comedy in between Louise’s ever shifting relationships with the two men.


Ophuls’ somehow makes you feel for all three parts of the triangle, it at times reminded me of Jules Et Jim in the way the two men were swept up and doomed by the passions of the female lead. Both men start with an air of sophistication. Boyer has his own lovers and is happy to pay for his wife’s indiscretions as long as they remain hidden. De Sica sees Louise’s broken suitors and promises her he will not make their mistake of hoping to actually possess her. Boyer’s General, like seemingly everyone else in Paris, sees De Sica as good company for his wife while he is away and, almost, to the end there is a civility between the two men. Louise’s declarations to De Sica are always that she does NOT love him. It feels like three people who are doing fine until real passion intrudes and then things take on a fatalistic air that is reflected in the constant attempts at fortune telling. Boyer’s annoyance that the others haven’t played by the rules is possibly the only thing that makes his challenging De sica to a duel fit. He could handle his wife having suitors when she was motivated purely by narcissism but not her actually in love. Or maybe he really was more insulted by De Sica’s comments about the French army than about any matters of love.

Having known Boyer in English language comedies it was very interesting to see him in his native French, he is still funny, there are moments of incredible lightness alongside the tragedy and he is stiff,, pompous and proud but capable of kindness, although the kindness and gentleness seem to float around in amongst the more serious matters of his army career and position. He stops for a second to wonder what happened to his exiled lover and to express sorrow that she hasn’t done well in Turkey but then flicks back to the matters at hand.


He is no caricature and neither is De Sica’s Italian lover, he is shown to be an experienced seducer, someone who drifts through Europe playing games and moving on, quoting his diplomatic immunity to remove him from local trifles. He seems amused that he is genuinely caught in love and aware that it will doom him without it ever ruffling his knowing expression.

Danielle Darieux’s Louise is graceful, beautiful and trapped, like De Sica seemingly stunned by the realisation of love after all this time. She fights it, the scenes of her in Italy tearing up letters and raging at servants were great and ultimately she turns to God for help that doesn’t come. You end up feeling for all three of the leads.

An amazingly beautiful film that had me noticing all the details I often miss about the camera work and composition and design without ever breaking the hold of the story.


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