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MOVIE REVIEW : Sublime 'Madame de . . .' Returns

October 28, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Madame de . . . " is back in town. Maybe for only a week and with only one theater (the Nuart in West Los Angeles starting today) to her name. But no visitor could be more welcome, no matter what the conditions.

An elegant, visually opulent piece of work, "The Earrings of Madame de . . ." (to give it its English-language title) is one of the high points of French romantic cinema as well as a sublime piece of filmmaking. Directed by Max Ophuls in 1953, "Madame de . . ." may not have a horde of American suitors, but those who know it admire it unreservedly.

Though its turn-of-the-century Paris story of the peregrinations of a pair of diamond earrings is little more than a trifle, Ophuls and his superb cast--Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio de Sica--turn it into a near-perfect jewel that rewards any number of viewings.

It is Madame de . . . (a countess whose last name we never learn) who is seen first, languidly searching through her luxurious closets for something to sell. A beautiful and pampered woman with the wit to describe herself as "incorrigible, frivolous, a liar," Madame de . . . (Darrieux) has fallen into debt she can no longer ignore.

Finally the choice is made: a pair of earrings her husband (Boyer), a prominent general in the French army, bought her as a wedding present. She takes them to a jeweler who promises absolute secrecy. "We only sell to men because of women," he tells her. "Discretion is part of our profession."

But circumstances force the jeweler to confide in the general, and soon the earrings begin their romantic journey, headed first to Constantinople, then back to Paris, where every change in their ownership symbolizes the ebb and flow of love from one character to another.

Bringing the jewels back from Constantinople is an Italian diplomat, Baron Fabrizio Donati (De Sica), a friend of the general's who is introduced to the notoriously fickle countess with the full expectation that the two will engage in a round of superficial flirtation.

Instead, the countess and the baron find themselves in danger of committing the ultimate sin in their heartless, deeply cynical world: genuinely caring for each other and allowing true emotion to air out their luxurious, suffocating lives.

Ophuls (who co-wrote the script based on a novel by Louise De Vilmorin) has the ideal temperament for this melancholy love story. He understands perfectly its world-weary milieu, a beautifully dressed and immaculately groomed universe where elaborate codes of honor mask a disdain for both caring and passion.

More than that, Ophuls as a director was as great a visual stylist as film has ever seen. His use of the camera (here with director of photography Christian Matras) is the stuff of legend, and seeing "Madame de . . ." underlines why critic Andrew Sarris (one of the film's greatest admirers) has said that Ophuls "gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of cinema."

Even today, with Steadicams and all kinds of gizmos available, no director has been able to match the sensual, caressing nature of Ophuls' almost continual camera movements, or the unself-conscious ease with which they are executed. "Madame de's . . ." visual centerpiece, a montage of a series of gliding, gilded balls in which the countess and the baron begin to realize they are falling in love, has to be one of the most visually sublime sequences ever put on film.

Despite these splendors, "Madame de's . . ." actors manage not to be overshadowed. Darrieux is both stunning and subdued as the countess, Boyer properly imperious as the general, and De Sica, himself a formidable director, a wonderfully sincere suitor. Together, in the best 35mm print that's been available in some time, they constitute an event no lover of romantic cinema will want to miss.

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