Review: Madame de…

The acknowledged masterpiece of director Max Ophüls, the 1953 French drama “Madame de…” was, for some bizarre reason, re-titled for English-speaking audiences as “The Earrings of Madame de…” To my mind, this new title does not make any clearer exactly who Madame is than did the original, but I am not a Hollywood distribution executive, either. In any case, call it what you will, the film is worth a look but is ultimately a great disappointment.

Danielle Darrieux plays the title character, a fashionable, spoiled but socially popular countess in 19th century Paris. Her husband the count, played by Charles Boyer, is a general in the French army. He tolerates his wife’s frivolities and expenditures, even her many male admirers, but only up to a point. Her social success is a reflection of his, and he indulges her somewhat like a pet poodle in order to cement his own popularity. It also allows him time to keep a mistress.

However the tables are soon turned, and the count’s mistress heads off to Constantinople, while the countess takes up with an Italian diplomat, played by the great Italian director Vittorio De Sica. In all honesty, I had never realized De Sica was an actor, despite having enjoyed a number of his Italian neo-realist films. (This of course demonstrates how much one needs to learn about European cinema.)

Like a combination of Maupassant and Tolstoy, but without the cunning of the former or the emotional depth of the latter, “Madame de…” vacillates between frothy love story, domestic comedy, soap opera, and morality tale, without ever seeming to find a soul. The story herein is nothing that a reasonably well-read person has not seen before, in “Camille” or “Madame Bovary” or “La femme abandonnée”. Indeed, even its ending, where Madame offers her infamous earrings as a gift to St. Geneviève, lacks spiritual depth: what exactly is she sacrificing? Does she really expect the Patroness of Paris to intercede so she can continue to commit adultery?

Certainly the performances here are very good and, for the most part, believable. The cinematography, particularly some of the tracking shots, is worth closer study by anyone interested in how beautifully old films of this type used to be made. There are even some very funny lines, and the viewer would be forgiven for thinking, at least in the first third of the film, that they were about to see a romantic comedy. Boyer in particular has some great dialogue, when speaking with his contemporaries and also in dealing with a persistent jewel merchant who finds himself having to sell and re-sell the same earrings to the General for most of the course of the film.

Unfortunately, none of this makes up for a script that starts out well, but ends in an unbelievable, rushed and cliched mess. The result is something like a high school dinner theatre production of “Anna Karenina”, so much so that I found myself – not unlike last weekend – counting the minutes left on the timer until everyone would be dead. The play’s the thing, after all, and if the play is no good, then having great lighting, sets, and actors is only going to take you so far. Fans of French cinema should see this film, but the high ratings which it has universally received simply are not deserved.

>Review: Le Doulos

>American movie-goers are often unaware of the existence of a number of great French gangster films, like “Du rififi chez les hommes” or “Touchez pas au grisbi”. However, there are also a number of uninteresting ones, like “Le samouraï” with Alain Delon, or this outing, “Le Doulos”, with Jean-Paul Belmondo. Both of these uninteresting pictures are by Jean-Pierre Melville, whose work is well-regarded among cinephiles. Unfortunately, the pacing in these two works has permanently thrown Melville into my category of “been there, done that.”

When it comes to film, as indeed with novels, I am usually willing to give a particularly well-regarded director or author a chance, if only to see what the fuss is about. If I am pleased with what I discover, great. If not, depending on whether I find anything redeemable about the film or the book, I may give its creator a second chance to impress me.

In the case of Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, for example, who is most famous for his novel “The Master and Margarita”, I was lucky enough to have read another of his works, “The White Guard”, and loved it. Had I read the overrated and appalling mess that is “The Master and Margarita” first, I almost certainly would not have tried a second outing. Similarly, had I not seen Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” first, which truthfully I did not like very much other than seeing a radiant Claudia Cardinale, I probably would not have tried “La Dolce Vita”, a film which I loathed probably about as much as I loathed “The Master and Margarita”.

Does this mean that I have poor taste, or an undeveloped appreciation of artistic endeavour? Perhaps this is true, though my experience would tell me otherwise. The end result is that I will simply have to agree to disagree with the rest of the world.

In the case of Melville, the legendary French noir director, I find myself simply bored by his work. His plots are on the borderline of being too complex, and the look of his films does not make up for the incredibly slow pacing. The genius of “Rififi”, for example, is that the cinema-goer does not at first realize that a long time has passed since anyone has actually said anything, yet they are still enthralled with the progress of the burglary. In “Le Doulos”, the characters talk and talk and say very little of interest.

While it is great to see a young and stylish Jean-Paul Belmondo in his element, before his regrettable “Dirty Harry”-style pictures from later in his career, by the end I was checking the clock to see how much longer I had to wait before everyone died. Though not as great an actor as Jean Gabin, it seems unfortunate that Melville wasted Belmondo’s threatening yet magnetic screen presence on a series of cock-ups that anyone who has watched an episode of “Law & Order” could see coming. One wonders what an American version of this tale starring Jimmy Cagney might have looked like.

Much as I regret to admit this, Melville has, in my uninformed opinion, been tried and found wanting. In this he is in, at least for the rest of the world, in respectable company, along with Fellini and others. However there seems little reason for me to visit the rest of his oeuvre when there are so many other films out there waiting to be discovered.