Thursday, December 17, 2009


In 19th century Paris, the never-fully-named Madame of the title (Danielle Darrieux) is married to a well-off general (Charles Boyer) but, due to what we assume are gambling debts he doesn’t know about, she sells an expensive set of earrings that he gave her as a wedding present, then tells him that they were lost or stolen at the opera. The jeweler she sold them to, upset at the publicity given the theft, contacts the general who buys them back and gives them to his mistress, who is leaving for Constantinople. She ends up pawning them to pay off *her* gambling debts, and a baron (Vittorio De Sica), heading to Paris, buys them. The baron and Madame meet by accident and fall into a passionate affair, but when the baron gives her the earrings as a gift, events spiral downward and the film changes from a light comedy of manners to a romantic tragedy.

This highly-regarded film by Max Ophuls has long been on my list of must-see films, and I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint. The plot points of the elegantly structured narrative are all triggered by the telling of “white lies” (or lies of omission) or the keeping of secrets, and for a while it’s fun to see how the events snowball, how people (especially Madame) mask their feelings and try to follow or wriggle around the rules of society. It’s all well plotted and well acted, but the film is a classic due to its direction and cinematography. The sets and costumes are lovely, the imagery is rich, and the camerawork is dazzling. The most astonishing sequence is a series of swirling shots which follow Madame and the baron across a number of dance floors as they fall in love. In the last half-hour, the tone goes from playful to tragic, and in a way that I don’t find completely convincing--the novella the film is based on apparently has a somewhat less bleak ending--but it does lead up to a nice final shot of poetic justice. The Criterion DVD is, of course, gorgeous. [DVD]

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