(French/Italian, 1953, 105 minutes, b&2, 16mm)
Directed by Max Ophüls
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
But where was home? Ophüls had been an exile for a very, very long time. A German Jew, with an extensive background in the theater as an actor, director, and playwright, Ophüls had just begun to direct films when the Nazis came to power. The flames of the Reichstag illuminated the face of anti-semitic hate and the end of democracy in Germany, and Ophüls (like Anatole Litvak and a dozen other Jewish directors) fled a film industry that was about to become virtually an arm of Josef Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. Ophüls spent a decade gypsying across Europe. He made films in France, Holland, Italy, and Switzerland, and stayed for a time in the Soviet Union. With his wife and young son (Marcel Ophüls, the future director) in tow, Max Ophüls eked out a creative existence as the world darkened around him. The presence of fascism would always have an effect on all his films, making them inevitably, no matter what their ostensible subject, mournful and sardonic.
In 1941, he came to the U.S., where triumphs like LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN were less frequent than frustrations, such his work on the ill-starred Howard Hughes-Faith Domergue vanity production, VENDETTA. A dozen other films were aborted, and Ophüls was constantly appalled at the boorishness, both personally and artistically, of his Hollywood hosts. With Europe beginning to emerge from its horrific, tragic recent past, Ophüls came back, and made his home in France, where he made his last four films, LA RONDE (1950, LE PLAISIR (1952), THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE..., and LOLA MONTES (1955). These are films about souls without spiritual homes, and the regrets and memories of wartime hang over them like a shroud.
THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... is among the most poignant of these films. By now, Ophüls' cinematic evolution was complete, his style a subtle but magisterial one. His use of camera movement to instruct us in the sorrows of his troubled central characters is perhaps the most sophisticated use of visual technique in the history of cinema. The narrative rhythm of THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... comes from a slight tale of missing earrings, but Ophüls doubles this motif with swooping craning camera movements. Long takes (like the justly famous opening scene, a film-school staple) carry the viewer deep into the world and psyche of the otherwise mysterious "Madame de..." (Danielle Darrieux). Hers is an erotic world of romantic intrigue, her life a silken boudoir where restrained passion structures her existence. The film is a visual cascade of lavish balls, elegant gambling dens, and the mansions of the idle rich. For all their wealth, though, the grandees of THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... live an enforced cosmopolitanism, as rootless as Ophüls himself had been during the long night of his flight from fascism.
Ophüls' camera is anything but aimless, as he plumbs these spaces and the lovely, haunted figures who waltz through them. His is a refugee's view of a world that was, but can never be again. Far more than a fluffy, fancy-dress fantasy for a still-reeling, starving Europe, THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... is an allegory for the pathology of a Continent which, in Ophüls' life, had twice seen itself plunged into holocaust. As gorgeous as these bejeweled, bemedaled creatures are, this is a Skeleton's Dance.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.