There would probably be a film by Max Ophuls in my best 10 movies of all time, let alone my best 100. It is not La Ronde, his most successful film, nor Lola Montes, the magnificent last work of a career that spanned 25 years and took in Germany, Italy and France as well as Hollywood.
My favourite is the film preceding La Ronde – 1953’s Madame De. The film is one of four he made towards the end of his life in France, which also included the less satisfactory but still impressive melodramas Caught and The Reckless Moment. It encapsulates both his dazzling technique and the way it serves what looks like slight material.
The story, taken from a novella by Louise de Vilmorin but translated by Ophuls into something more like Pirandello or Anna Karenina, revolves around a pair of earrings. They are given to Madame De (Danielle Darrieux) by her husband (Charles Boyer). But she sells them to pay her debts, only for her husband to buy them back and give them to his mistress.
The mistress also sells them, and they are bought by a diplomat (Vittorio de Sica) who falls for none other than Madame De. Now her husband discovers the whole secret, and tells the diplomat, who gives her up. Losing the one true love of her life, she dies of a broken heart.
Ophuls takes what might have been a slight little story and transforms it into something far more substantial. This is not because the film looks so beautiful or is acted so well, although both these things are true. Darrieux was a warmer, more vulnerable adornment to French cinema than Catherine Deneuve, and she matures from a flighty young thing into a passionate woman as the plot unfolds. I can’t recall better performances from De Sica or Boyer either.
What makes this movie is Ophuls’s capacity to turn an almost decadent sense of ornamentation into something aware and acutely personal. His was one of the most highly honed and polished styles in world cinema, with elaborate camera movements and shimmering, ornate decor that shows us, in this case, an extravagant material world in which the earrings become the symbol and emblem of domestic tragedy.
In the famous ball sequence, Ophuls manages to suggest first the gaiety of Madame De’s dance with her lover, then the deepening of their love for one another, and finally the impending disaster. At the end of it, a flunky puts out light after light in the ballroom and, as he throws a cover over a harp, we end in darkness. The pacing is perfect and every element of the film-making process contributes to the whole.
You could say, of course, that Madame De is a woman’s picture, like the equally fine Letter From An Unknown Woman. Many of Ophuls’s movies were centred on women, but that doesn’t mean they were sentimental, or had a penchant for mythologising womanhood. They did, however, show the difficulties women have in a male-dominated society.
What once prevented critics treating Ophuls seriously was the splendour of his film-making. Somehow that meant he was not wholly to be trusted, as if irony and a lightness of touch simply meant stylish flippancy. Now, however, we see him as he is – a film-maker whose admirers included such diverse artists as Truffaut, Genet, Rossellini and Preston Sturges.
Ophuls died of rheumatic heart disease in 1957. He was only 55 and had made 21 films. The themes of most of them were the same – the transitory nature of pleasure and the illusions of happiness. His method was simple, even if his technique was not.
He once said: ‘Details, details, details! The most insignificant, the most unobtrusive among them are often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive. Exact details, an artful little nothing, make art.’