Friday, February 18, 2011

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) Max Ophüls

This post makes five bloggings in a row with a threesome.

Oh, don't get me wrong. The Earrings of Madame de... is French, certainly, but made in 1953 and not that type of a film. But going back through my four previous B&W entries, there's Following, Notorious, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Place in the Sun, and now this: a film in which one central character is torn between two lovers, feelin' like a fool. If February blogging was meant for black and white as I originally intended, I guess it's also meant for red -- it is no surprise you'll catch VD* in this peculiar film month.

The thing that may set The Earrings of Madame de... apart from those films, or at least closer to Hitchcock's Notorious, is its carefully crafted lensing. A masterwork of cinematography, it's a feast for the eyes, with sweeping, long, mobile shots of characters popping in and out of frame, gently followed from one position with visual delight. The central character Louise, the madame in Madame de... is seen gliding down staircases, dancing around elegant ballrooms, surrounded by onlooking men who tend to gaze along with a grazing camera. She's the focus of the story, and the lens, too, which fixes on her beauty as she spoils it with her deeds.

Louise, a wealthy socialite referred to as the Countess, is frantically searching through closets and jewel boxes in the film's first long take. She's looking for something to sell -- she's spent too much, and it's suggested this isn't the first time. She'll have to pawn something to get out of debt, and keep the whole thing a secret to herself.

Several items she glosses over have worth. We can tell by the jewelry, the furs, and noticing the lavish decor. But she comes across an item that should have sentimental value, given as a gift from her husband the day of their wedding: a pair of earrings with a diamond heart -- costly, and gorgeous to behold. They should be treasured and held as a memento from the one most dear to her. Sadly, for whatever reason, they are not.

She's off to the jeweler, pawning sentimentality for cash, telling the workers in the house to be vague if her husband -- the General -- asks about her whereabouts.

The jeweler isn't interested in the purchase at first. He sees the earrings as belonging to the General, the Count and not the Countess. This may be culturally true, a fact she'll learn soon enough. She uses the appeal of her status and her stunning good looks, and finally a quick fainting spell to win him over to her reasoning; he quickly agrees to buy the earrings he once sold to the General for his bride. The money is on its way, but now she needs to make a little lie for the whereabouts of the earrings sold off. Her stories beget stories, and the story of the earrings begins.

The earrings are a sort of character of their own. They do a bit of traveling, out of the country and then back, touching the hands of a cast of lives who are intertwined and woven together. Their voyage and return sheds light on those who touch them along the way: the General is at the end of an affair and gives the earrings to his exiting mistress; the Countess is beginning an affair and receives the earrings from her man as a gift; and the Jeweler that sells the same earrings four times -- he's probably the happiest of anyone in the film.

"Coincidence is only extraordinary because it is so natural," says the General in reference to the jewels that mysteriously return. He might as well be describing the Countess, misplacing her passions in an affair with a foreign dignitary, Baron Donati.

It seemed like fate when she kept bumping into the Baron: meeting in the street after locking eyes weeks earlier at a train station, and later introduced to the Baron by the General himself. It's a case where events seem less random than somehow synchronized. But thinking that the Universe is aligning to bring you a love life is self-centered at best, delusional at worst, and one rarely considers that the events of fate could be aligning for your unhappiness, or even your end.

Along with the mistake of believing in fate, the Countess stops by church when facing emergencies, throwing fire escape prayers at the heavens. The prayers, like destiny, help little with her problems. There's either a God that's unimpressed with those wishing to avoid consequences, or, more likely in Ophüls' world, prayer and God are like destiny and are only constructs. The only thing found when Louise walks into a church is the gaze at her stroll by men who came there to pray.

Her husband -- the stern military General outside, the Count within, the firm "head of the house" -- might have had his own hypocrisy in a misplaced affair, but it won't stop him from ending hers.

In a few short months Louise has lost her place of standing. Everyone knows of her rendezvous. They know about the earrings, the Baron, and all the lies. She's humiliated, isolated, left to rot away the hours solo in a dimly lit bed. She's surrounded by wealth but willing to give it all up for love, surrounded by comfort but uncaring.

When he finally feels she's been put her in her place, the General, who has been gentle to this point but remains a military presence to be feared, turns the crank even harder on her unhappiness. Telling her humiliation is the easiest of things to get over, he cruelly assures her a fate that is sealed in more suffering, making her ever unhappy, even as he claims that unhappiness, "Is our own invention."

I have little patience with lovesick fools in film, those who think that love or the lack thereof is worth dying for, killing for, or killing yourself for -- that the only thing that matters is that one other person, like the the empty thought of those horrible words uttered by Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, "You complete me." That's a lot of potential drama dropped in the lap of someone else, and they can hoist it to foil you whenever they want.

Louise lives a false reality of that perfect lover that completes her. She thinks that she can't be whole on her own without another, and if that was ever the General, it certainly isn't now. When that notion of another is gone, when the lovers have all moved on, when there's no happy ending in context in sight, is there really and truly nothing left?

It's better to be complete in the first place and not find someone to complete you. Louise is one of many lovers in film (and, unfortunately, life) who thinks that two halves make a whole. She forgets that 1 X 1 = 1.

I won't hold this too hard against such a finely crafted film. The fact is that there are millions like this all around the planet, every day in real life, at your office or on the job. I guess if they exist, which they do, they ought to be present in a few films. The problem is that the films tend to reinforce their misguided thinking.

The Earrings of Madame de... is a beautiful film with misguided people at its core. Some of the best stories and films are a lot like this. It's a film I'd recommend, but encourage one not to buy into its notions. If your true love leaves you, it doesn't give you the right to go all Romeo + Juliet.

Madame de... has had a large awakening over the past few years, especially with its 2008 DVD release by Criterion. As is often the case with Criterion, an education awaits when delving into the features on their disc. Packed with enough in-depth extras to almost rival the film itself, the commentary alone by film scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar is wonderfully suited to the Netflix crowd. Plumbing Freud, feminist film theory, philosophy, psychology and sociology, it's like a film class tailor made for DVD. These are two wonderful scholars that are wonderfully scholarly.

But for those willing to lay down cash for the whole package, there's a booklet containing the original novel, an excerpt from the book "Max Ophuls," by the fimmaker's longtime costume designer Georges Annenkov, and an introduction by Village Voice writer Molley Haskel, aptly entitled, "The Cost of Living." Haskel's writing is superbly written, feeling like a sort of ode to a film she's fallen in love with. Pointing out subtle nuances, especially in much dialogue I never picked up on, it also gives a bit of the history and background of the writers and makers of the film. Her writing is spellbinding -- it made me go back for another viewing, for all the beauty she finds in it.

* Valentine's Day.

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