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A much-underrated director and supreme stylist, Max Ophuls is having a renaissance with a series at the British Film Institute this February that should not be missed. His films, spanning the 1930s to the mid-50s, are beautiful models of melodrama, with femme fatales, longing lovers and doomed romances. Ophuls began his career in German theatre and radio, later making films across Europe before emigrating to America during the war. As a Jewish exile in Hollywood, he carved out a name for himself with films like Letter from and Unknown Woman (starring Joan Fontaine) and The Reckless Moment (with James Mason). But the films that he made in France following the end of the Second World War are what best represent his remarkable talent: the tragic Lola Montes, Le Plaisir, La Ronde and, the jewel in his crown, Madame de… (1953).
Featuring the beautiful actress, Danielle Darrieux, Madame de… is the story of a passionate romance in belle époque Paris between the married Louise (the eponymous Madame De) and an Italian diplomat, Donati (played by the famous director of Italian neo-realism, Vittorio de Sica). This is a tale of tragic melodrama, adapted from a novel by the infamous Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin, and is a highly autobiographical reflection of her illustrious life. The married woman who falls for the dashing womaniser may be a common conceit, but the magic of Ophuls’ storytelling transports an otherwise familiar narrative into new territory. Visually sumptuous, the filmmaker’s notoriously long tracking shots draw you into the story, playing visual tricks with mirrors and swirling montages. The luscious sets, twinkling lights and glamorous costumes provide a perfect piece of escapism, as they would have done for audiences of post-war Europe.
The central motif of the film is a pair of diamond earrings that Louise sells to pay off her gambling debts in the opening sequence. Initially given to her by her husband when they first married, they are repeatedly bought and sold, and eventually given to Louise again, in a moment of intense irony, by her lover Donati. The earrings come to represent love as a process of exchange; they are both love and affection, but also symbolic of the inevitable downfall of desire. In Madame de…, Ophuls plays with the classic figure of the femme fatale — the seductress whose charms ensnare her lovers in the bonds of irresistible desire. She is described by her husband as a “flirt” and “adept at making you die of hope”. The tragic irony in this scene becomes apparent later in the film when Donati mirrors the husband’s words, telling Louise how he has learned to hope. And yet, while his leading women often ensnare men with their charms, Ophuls presents them as victims of love as much as men, rather than perpetrators of destruction. In many of his films the female protagonists struggle against their desire and seek to escape it. Indeed, in Madame de... Louise departs after realising her love for Donati, allowing a beautiful sequence of Danielle Darrieux on the beach looking out at the sea, later tearing up her unsent letters and sending them out in the wind where they transform into snow. In Madame de…, it could be said, the femme fatale is not Louise but the diamond earrings; they are the central objects of desire, fatalistic in their superficial charm, and which are at the end crystallised as relics to lost romance.
There is something eternal about the romantic images conjured by Ophuls. The soft-focus close-ups and lingering looks behind doors are characteristic of this early 1950s period of cinema. Having worked as a director in Hollywood for a number of years, Ophuls knew how to make a beautiful and glamorous film. Yet, from his background in the German theatre of the 1920s, Ophuls is at heart a modernist. There is far more substance to his films than the commercial melodramas that were pouring out of America at this time. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in To the Lighthouse:
Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron.
While we may revel in their evanescent visions of decadence, underneath the bright lights Ophuls’ films are far more complex and intriguing. As the husband André describes his relationship to Louise in Madame de…: “We are only superficially superficial.” Beneath the veneer of the frivolous fin-de-siecle world, some more pressing social critique is bubbling. In its visual complexity and ironic humour, this is a film that invites you to enjoy a piece of commercial escapism, while simultaneously prompting you, with its artful gaze, to question your passive consumption of twinkling spectacle.
In the current climate, when the doom and gloom of recession and the depths of wet and windy weather are hitting us from all angles, Max Ophuls’ films inhabit a particularly precious place. As romantic escapism, they beguile us with their cathartic tragedy — their style and social context revealing hidden depths that linger on you like a musky perfume. Films like Madame de.. are perhaps as important today as they were in post-war Europe. This is a superb film by a supreme auteur; it should be watched and cherished.