Max Ophüls is undeniably one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. He is best known for his tragic French melodramas, but was also an extremely accomplished director of Hollywood film noir, with The Reckless Moment and Caught. The most distinguished feature of his films is long, elaborate tracking shots that give Orson Welles and Samuel Fuller a run for their money.
Madame de… is probably his most acclaimed work, and probably rightfully so, but all his works from the late ‘40s and ‘50s are exquisite. This particular film is set in the late 19th century in Paris. It’s about the Countess Louise who decides to sell her earrings, which were a wedding gift, because she is overspending and has large debts. She lies to her husband, and it starts a chain reaction of events that include a mistress, an Italian diplomat, more deception and a good old-fashioned duel.
The most celebrated scene is a ballroom sequence, which Luchino Visconti gleefully ripped off for his equally great one in The Leopard. However, the glittery costumes and design, and the most astonishing swirling long takes you can imagine, are utterly breathtaking in Madame de… . Ophüls’ films, especially the French ones, dealt with the upper classes, and by making everything and everyone so beautiful looking he was able to portray the deep unfulfillment of their lives without ever explicitly making the film “political.”
The cast is really exceptional, especially Danielle Darrieux, an actress who had such elegance that she was always captivating. The fact she is so watchable compliments the elaborate camera work enormously. Charles Boyer was down and out after his earlier success as “The French lover,” and he is great as the husband. The Italian Neo-Realist director Vittorio De Sica plays the Diplomat. Ophüls respected his work so much that he couldn’t even attempt to give him direction, and they soon became fast friends.
Madame de… remains a remarkable film, full of substance, and made more powerful by the aesthetic choices Ophüls made than its story. However, the story is truly tragic and striking one as well. If you are a student of cinema, and especially if you haven’t experienced the swirling camerawork of Ophüls, you are missing out. Jason Mason, who worked him on his noirs, once wrote in a poem about Ophüls: “A shot that does not call for tracks/Is agony for poor old Max.” His influence can be felt very much in the work of Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Haynes, amongst many others.
BFI’s disc has an excellent hour-long documentary about the film and Ophüls, which was made a couple years ago and features interviews with people who worked with him back in the day. It provides a big insight into his psyche during the making of the film. It also includes an additional 25-minute interview with Alain Jessua, who worked him on the film. It comes in a dual format release with a nice fat booklet with essays by Laura Mulvey, Adrian Danks, and Lindsay Anderson.