Roger Ebert is of course the source I keep going to as a guide, especially when it comes to movies where I don’t feel like I’m understanding the greatness, and in his review of Madame de… (of which both he and I are avid fans) he compares the movie to others where the visual splendor, its opulence, is its own kinda feast. And I wanna dwell on that for a moment because I just addressed something similar in the piece about The Golden Coach, director Jean Renoir’s final appearance on the List.
I don’t wanna say that I hated Renoir’s last movie here, because I don’t think it’s fair for me to talk that way about something I’m being forced to watch (and yes, I know, nobody is technically forcing me to watch it, but in adherence to the Project, yes, I have to), but I certainly hated watching it. I was bored by the story of the love triangle and I could barely follow what the characters were talking about, the whole thing seemed kinda pompous and dull—but the beauty and technical mastery didn’t endear me at all. Certainly didn’t make up for the story’s tedium.
Something like Dr. Mabuse, though, did hold my attention, at least in the beginning (when I didn’t know what the fuck was going on) by merit of its beauty. Its visual trickiness, its cleverness.
Director Max Ophuls, who’s appeared prior to Madame de… with two other movies on the List that I really enjoyed (The Reckless Moment and, to my surprise, Letter from an Unknown Woman), does make a movie whose visual splendor roped me in despite a total and reflexive disinterest in the subject matter (period romances aren’t my cuppa tea, as I’ve addressed in reference to Camille and Peter Ibbetson and Queen Christina and others). And I think it’s because Ophuls, like Fritz Lang in Mabuse, has a complex story that he really wants to tell. There’s heart in it. I think Golden Coach, for Renoir, was totally cerebral. Like an old chef who once made very rich meals but now just wants to pick at sweets, the whole thing feels indulgent and kinda tired.
Ophuls hooked me with his long tricky camera shots that follow people around rooms and, in one particularly remarkable feat toward the beginning, follow a man all through a playhouse and out into the parking lot, but ultimately I was hooked by the mood of the thing too, the vibe of secrecy and yearning in this story of a miserable marriage and adultery where there’s nothing romantic about the domestic discontent. The husband is a tyrant, dapper and concerned with appearances and only wanting his wife insofar as he can wear her as like a gorgeous ornament and then presumably fuck her and receive lots of thanks and praise for the dicking. But there’s nothing storybook about his horribleness, where like the dude is so terrible he’s almost like a weather system. Razing the earth as he moves.
He’s called The General and he’s played by Charles Boyer, who fucked with our heads as the romantic villain of George Cukor’s Gaslight a few years prior to this, and his terribleness here is super banal. He’s just icy and dishonest and arrogant and cruel. It’s believably mundane and, in that respect, almost more odious than the husband-villain of Gaslight.
The story, real quick, is this: Madame de…, whose last name we never get who’s also called Louise (played by Danielle Darrieux), has received from her husband a gift of some very expensive earrings. She sells those earrings in order to get some cash to pay off a debt. This is a secret from her husband. The dealer to whom she sells them, however, is the same dealer who sold them to her husband. When the husband asks Louise about the earrings, she claims to have lost them at a playhouse. The General puts out notices saying that these very expensive earrings have been lost.
Well the jeweler sees this and thinks, “Fuck, I can’t have somebody come in here, see the earrings on display, and think I fuckin stole em.” (I’m paraphrasing.) So he takes the earrings back to the General, so that he won’t be accused of theft, but in order to explain how the earrings came into his possession he’s gotta be like, “Yo, ahdunno what your wife’s up to, but she’s pawning shit behind your back.”
The General buys the earrings back and gives them to his mistress. The mistress goes to another city and loses the earrings while gambling. Baron Fabrizio Donati (played by a handsome Vittorio de Sica, director of Bicycle Thief and Umberto D.) buys them and, after starting an affair with Louise, gives them as a gift to her.
So the earrings travel full circle and, as Ebert points out, they come to mean different things depending on the giver and recipient of the gift. From her husband, they feel like toxic baubles; from her lover, they feel lovely.
But what’s also lovely about this is how the earrings, a great McGuffin, are also a kind of central character. We follow them into the hands of different people and then, in radically different situations, back into the possession of familiar people. The story is constantly developing, unfolding. What would, in the hands of another filmmaker, just be a story of marital discontent, of true love being either squashed or fulfilled, becomes, in the hand sof Max Ophuls, this beautifully recursive story that moves.
I feel about the structure of this movie the way I felt about Winchester 73, which has a similar gimmick: there’s an extremely valuable rifle, one of only a thousand ever made, and while the heart of that movie is the blood feud between Jimmy Stewart and Millard Mitchell, the story follows that rifle into the hands of our hero, and then into the hands of the villain, and then into the hands of some menacing strangers whose paths will bring us back into contact with our heroes.
Why do I like this trope so much?
I think it’s maybe because the viewer is madde to feel like they aren’t on steady ground. Normally, in a western where Jimmy Stewart is the star, we feel like he’s too precious to the story to be injured. We don’t feel like there’s very much at stake. But if the movie walks away from him, focuses on some tense standoff in a different part of town with two characters we barely know, there’s this vibe like the movie is willing to dispose of anybody.
I’m gonna visit this movie again—not just because I like it but because I feel like it’s inching me toward some realization about storytelling, how to hook an audience, how to move a narrative forward and bend it back at the same time.