I first watched the Criterion DVD of this film in November 2013. It proved to be one of the highlights of my film viewing that year. The film made me feel “sweet and heady” like Lilac Wine – I was simply exhilarated as if I had been the one dancing with Danielle Darrieux over three nights in Paris!
The film feels so light, so effortless – just like a waltz. The film seems to float and flow - it feels beautifully proportioned and balanced.
The film skilfully blends different styles – there are delightful comedic touches (the jeweller’s son running up and down the stairs, the opera stage door attendants, Donati at the customs in Basel, the enchanting twists and turns of the fate of the diamond earrings), elegant romance (dancing scenes) and ultimately a profound and subtle tragedy.
The production design in the film is spectacular. The German directors in particular were noted for their exquisite interior set designs, decorations and costumes and this film is a case in point.
Ophuls is known for his long camera takes and camera movement – I always greatly appreciate long takes and this film has beautifully choreographed long scenes. The Criterion commentary track speculates that Ophuls’ preference for long takes may have been linked to his dyslexia. Whatever the initial reason was I would have to believe that it became a technique that he valued on its artistic merits.
The film is dominated by the role of Madame de played by Danielle Darrieux. What can I say about this actress? When it comes to cinematic performances it tends to be the “big” performances that get the most praise – particularly those that portray the more extreme emotions.
Danielle’s performance is simply magical and such a unique portrayal of a character. We learn much about the characters of General Andre and Baron Donati during the film - Charles Boyer and Vittorio De Sica give such magnificent performances - however, this is Louise’s story and Danielle Darrieux’s film.
The opening is delightful. Ophuls gives us such a beautiful introduction to Louise and her luxurious lifestyle. The music is exquisite and I was interested to note that Louise sings the melody of the theme leaving us in no doubt that the musical motif is her motif just as the film is her film.
The music was composed by Oscar Straus and arranged by Georges van Parys. Oscar Straus was a talented Viennese operetta composer in the early 20th century. In 1950 he met Max Ophuls and they collaborated on the music for La Ronde and again for Madame de. His exquisite music lends so much elegance to the film.
The choice to first reveal her in the mirror is so wonderful. I like Paul Thomas Anderson’s comment that with such a magnetic actress as Danielle Darrieux a director can allow the camera to just linger on her. On repeated viewings I noted the strong contrast between Louise’s playful detachment towards these earrings (a marriage present from her husband) at the start and her anxious attachment towards them at the end when they symbolise the profound emotions that have been awakened in her.
On my first viewing I saw her as a flirtatious woman who flaunts her charm and gets in over her head. On my last viewing I saw a different scenario - a younger woman married to an older army general - they sleep in different beds in adjoining rooms and they address each other with a certain formality that was likely a normal feature of marriages within such high social classes. She is very capable, sociable and not inclined towards self-pity so she makes the most of the situation. There would appear to be many benefits to the marriage for her – the wealth that she lives in, exposure to the arts and culture, beautiful fashion and jewellery, a varied social calendar, flattering admirers, a husband who seems to be a somewhat kind and understanding man.
As the film progresses she undergoes an awakening where strong emotions come to the surface and change her very being. Something similar occurs with her husband.
We learn early on that her husband is having an affair with a woman that he unfairly tosses aside and we can only assume that this has been a constant feature of their marriage whether or not Louise is aware of it.
It is open to us to speculate whether their relationship was once more close and intimate or whether this distance has been the pattern throughout. We can imagine that Louise, a beautiful and desirable young woman was seduced by the glamour and prestige of the marriage and it worked fine for the most part - he, with his military prestige and extra marital affairs and her with her glamorous lifestyle and suitors to flirt with. Also I imagine that Louise would have been under enormous familial and societal pressure to accept such a marriage proposal – I assume that Andre was already a General or destined to be one.
One issue that is not commented on in the film is that their marriage is childless.
When trying to ascertain Louise’s backround and character I think that we get some clues in the film. I feel that Louise probably comes from a more modest backround than what she married into. One clue to support this theory is her nounou (her nanny). Nounou is a straightforward and plain speaking woman with no airs or graces and we can assume that it was Louise who chose to keep her in her employment. She is superstitious and reads the Tarot cards. Nounou certainly does not belong in such an upper class house and obviously Louise insists on her being there and she is comforted by having somebody so grounded by her side. I also noted that nounou addresses Louise in the informal pronoun (tu/toi etc.). If Louise had vain upper class aspirations she would not permit Nounou to address her in this manner - Nounou is the only character in the film who addresses her so.
I lived and worked in France for several years and am somewhat familiar with the complexities of the informal and formal address. Another indication of Louise’s backround is her niece (I note the Criterion booklet assumes it to be the niece of her husband but I thought the opposite) - who lives in relatively modest dwellings.
Against this argument is the fact that her husband refers several times to her good breeding – I would imagine that many young women of modest means were trained in the art of etiquette and manners in order to make themselves more eligible for a prestigious marriage.
It is interesting to note how foward that her suitors are despite the fact that she is married and that her husband is present while they are flirting with her. It is made clear to us that she is very flirtatious and while her husband finds it tiring he does not seem to be threatened. We can imagine that his ego is quietly massaged by having such a desirable wife.
The earrings almost become a character themselves in the film. Ophuls described them as an axis around which the carrousel turned.The twist with the earrings is delicious - the General gets the earrings back. He plays with Louise but is never cruel to her – he seems to regard her white lies as harmless and he comes across as quite sympathetic.
When the Baron Fabrizio Donati enters the story things change - but not straight away. I love the comedic scene at the customs in Basel, Switzerland where Donati wants to get Louise’s attention. Vittorio De Sica was an excellent comedic actor – his part in the final story of the great Gold of Naples (1954) is nothing short of hysterical. The scene where they meet again by chance as their carriages collide is great fun.
From the outset he seems really taken with Louise. I interpreted it that he knew her already or had been introduced to her already at some point and that she remained in his mind. We learn that he has met the general Andre before in official settings so it is likely that he has already encountered Louise.
At the start Louise seems to flirt with him - like she does with most men I imagine. She is in control, having fun dancing with this distinguished and handsome man. I feel that it is the sincerity of his feelings for her that causes her emotions to deepen. We can only imagine that the General’s expressions of feelings for Louise are much less intimate as he plays the role of the distinguished husband with a trophy wife and his mistresses to amuse him. The story is open to interpretation – perhaps the General’s courtship of Louise during their engagement was equally passionate?
The dancing scenes are so wonderful. As the characters spin in circles together and Ophuls’ camera glides alongside we feel the relaxed, liberating sense that the couple feel as they dance. As the days pass by Donati draws closer to Louise and it is clear that he is falling for her. Despite the fact that Louise is a terrible flirt it becomes clear that her public meetings with Donati are becoming inappropriate.
The tone of the film changes when Donati comes to visit Louise in her home. We now see that the General is clearly threatened – up to now he has been amused by the situation feeling that it is all a game. Now he is jealous and fearful and acts to break up the connection between Donati and Louise. He forces Louise to leave Paris immedietly. The scene when he accompanies Louise through the train station mirrors the earlier scene with Lola. On that occasion he was upbeat and in control. Here his anxiety is evident as he senses that his wife is drifting away from him. He does not know how to deal with it except to regain control by simply breaking up the relationship and asserting his dominance.