Max Ophuls (1902–57) is the auteurist’s auteur. A director whose distinctive visual style and sustaining interests dominate movies he made in five countries and in as many languages, Ophuls epitomizes a particular worldview. Even as his long, intricately choreographed takes made the flow of time into something material, so his movies were often meditations on an irretrievable past.
The scion of a German-Jewish dry goods business, Ophuls (né Oppenheimer) defied his family to become first an actor and then a stage director in Vienna; although he began his movie career in Weimar, Germany and worked most prolifically in France and the U.S., Ophuls is the most Viennese of filmmakers. He taught the camera to waltz, often through a 19th-century city that, no matter its name, seems a glittering simulation of the Hapsburg capital.
The Earrings of Madame De . . . (1953), showing in a sparkling new 35mm print for two weeks at Film Forum, is quintessential Ophuls. Virtually every shot is a dolly and, although made in France and based on a French novel, it plays like a tale from the Wienerwald. Everything comes mit a dollop of schlag. The titles are an engraved invitation underscored by Strauss; the celebrated opening sequence introduces the eponymous heroine (Danielle Darrieux) at her toilette, pondering over which of her jewels, dresses, or furs she cares for least. The camera executes a series of spins to show off her possessions and winds up framing the comtesse herself in the dressing-table mirror. She’s humming—or perhaps it’s her boudoir, or even the world.
Having overspent her allowance, the Comtesse Louise de . . . (we’re never given her family name) decides to sell the diamond earrings that husband General Andre de . . . (Charles Boyer) gave her as a wedding present—and thereby hangs the tale. Over the course of the movie, the jewels pass back and forth between the characters, their value rising according to the emotional meaning invested in them. Louise pretends to have lost them at the opera; unbeknownst to her, the earrings find their way back to the general who regifts them to his departing mistress who, losing at roulette, pawns them in Constantinople where they are purchased by Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who will present them to Louise with heartbreaking results.
The circulation of these diamonds recalls La Ronde (1950), Ophuls’s cause-célébre adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play, in which a case of syphilis is passed from lover to lover. Simultaneously embodying precise social relations and priceless sentiment, the earrings equally suggest a Marxist riff on the nature of desire. (That the movie’s English-language distributor added “earrings” to the movie’s original title, Madame De . . . , has served to force such readings.) Last seen, however, the earrings have come to signify Louise herself.
Has there ever been so shallow a character whose fate is so tragic? Playing opposite two aging matinee idols, Darrieux is a natural coquette—not above strategic fainting spells—and undeniably lovely. With her upswept hair, bare shoulders, and impeccable posture, she blossoms from her gown like a single tulip in an Art Nouveau vase. Ophuls famously directed Darrieux to “incarnate a void,” and one of the movie’s great shots makes this literal (and also emphatic as, rather than moving his camera, Ophuls employs the motion of an object within the frame). As Louise goes on a trip, her train pulls out of the station, leaving the general, who has just seen her off, standing in a misty emptiness.
These characters have manners beyond mannerism. Almost every line has a double or even opposite meaning. When she’s with the baron, Louise several times repeats, “I don’t love you, I don’t love you.” But, as she actually does, he will cease to believe her. Vacuous as she is, Louise is always acting except when an unexpected surplus of emotion cues us that she isn’t. Late in the day, the general tells her that he has always resented the role in which she cast him. Desperate to regain her love, he presents her once more with the earrings, only to discover that she has never loved him.
On one hand, Madame De . . . is all surface and style; on the other, it conveys real loss. The three principals ultimately drown in the giddy whirlpool of Ophuls’s inexorable tracking shots. When the general tells Louise that their marriage is “only superficially superficial,” he might be speaking about the movie and, indeed, Ophuls’s entire oeuvre. Although the filmmaker is romantic enough to match cut from a flurry of torn love letters to the falling snow, the subtlety of other gestures seems more characteristic of Japanese than Western cinema. And the displacements are kabuki: Whether or not Louise and the baron ever consummate their love, their feelings are made amply (even shockingly) apparent at the two balls where they swoon in each other’s arms as if they were the only people in the room.
Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris didn’t agree on much but they did find common ground when it came to The Earrings of Madame De . . . . Writing in a small literary magazine in 1961, Kael used the word “perfection” to characterize Ophuls’s refined sensibility. And, some 15 years later, Sarris called Madame De . . . his candidate for “the greatest film of all time.” The greatness of Ophuls’s official masterpiece is that one can appreciate these sentiments even if one doesn’t necessarily share them. Much as I admire Madame De . . ., I prefer Ophuls flawed: His mangled Hollywood weepie, the heroically masochistic Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), and his wildly ambitious and equally miscast swan song, the delirious Lola Montez (1955), bear the wounds of a losing battle with the movie system. The Earrings of Madame De . . . is miraculously unscathed. The movie is gem-hard, crystalline, and superbly impervious.