In September 2008, Criterion released three Max Ophuls films simultaneously on DVD: “La ronde” (1950), “Le plaisir” (1952), and “The Earrings of Madame De…” (1953). The following review is an edited version of Christopher Long’s 2008 review which covered all three films. The Video, Audio, Extras, and Film Value sections specifically address Criterion’s August 2013 Blu-ray release of “The Earrings of Madame De…”
Both a canonized auteur and a successful commercial filmmaker on both sides of the Atlantic from the 30s through the 50s, Max Ophuls is a name unrecognized even by many savvy viewers today, though home theater releases over the last several years have helped to boost awareness. Ophuls has long been a favorite of great filmmakers, with no less a luminary than Stanley Kubrick citing him as a major inspiration.
Kubrick seldom discussed other directors, but expressed his admiration for Ophuls’ mastery of the tracking shot, an obvious influence on Kubrick’s career from at least as early as “Paths of Glory,” shot in 1957, the same year that Max Ophuls suffered a fatal heart attack. According to actor Richard Anderson, Kubrick wrapped shooting on “Paths” one day and proclaimed, “This shot is in memory of Max Ophuls, who died today.” Anderson says, “(Ophuls) was Stanley’s god.”
Ophuls’ insistently roving camera was not unprecedented in the ’40s and ’50s, but no other commercial filmmaker of the time so elegantly integrated the mobile camera into his work. Time and again, characters are introduced with long, graceful tracking shots that guide them from the edge of the frame into the heart of the scene. Ophuls was also fond of elaborately choreographed shots, such as the much-celebrated dance sequences in “The Earrings of Madame de…”, “La ronde,” and many other films. The camera just barely keeps up with the whirling characters as they cover some serious ground and then circle back to do it all again. He didn’t make it look effortless; he simply made it look flawless. Perfection that produces a sense of awe and the (accurate) impression that nobody else could have made it.
Criterion’s previous releases of “La ronde” and Le plaisir” are superb examples of Ophuls at the top of his game, but “The Earrings of Madame de…,” based on a story by Louise de Vilmorin, may be his true masterpiece (1948’s brilliant “Letter from an Unknown Woman” being the most likely challenger to the title.) Danielle Darrieux delivers the performance of a lifetime as the serial fainter and pathological liar Louise who is never given a last name.
Married to the wealthy General André (played by superstar Charles Boyer), Louise has a tendency to outspend the ample allowance allocated to her by her husband. She pawns the title earrings, then concocts a story about losing them at the opera, the first of many lies that sets the narrative into motion. Just as “La ronde” followed a series of connected sexual liaisons, this movie follows the earrings en route to Constantinople by way of André’s mistress and back into Louise’s possession via the Italian Baron Donati who becomes Louise’s most earnest suitor (there are many). Donati is portrayed with panache by Vittorio de Sica, and his compelling performance here is a reminder to modern audiences that the man now identified as one of the great Italian neo-realist directors was much better known to audiences of the time as a dashing screen icon.
André is used to Louise’s admirers and he plays the gentleman’s game of love with verve, but the shifting ownership of the earrings (and the scandals associated with them) humiliates him. He cannot let Louise Who-Has-No-Last-Name-But-If-She-Did-It-Would-Be-His labor under the false assumption that she is not his to control. That’s not how the game works.
The film’s incredible dancing sequences have been oft-discussed, but virtually every shot in this film possesses a luminous quality that is unique to Max Ophuls. He is one of a handful of filmmakers whose works are instantly identifiable from such a few seconds of footage. Many filmmakers have imitated him, few have succeeded.
“The Earrings of Madame De…” was the third film Ophuls directed after returning to France after his Hollywood years. He would only make one more before his death in 1957, the infamous and brilliant “Lola Montes” (1957).
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Unlike the 2008 SD release the image is not picture-boxed. This 1080p transfer is sourced from a 2012 restoration by Gaumont, and the results are somewhat mixed. I have read a few reviews that savage the new transfer, but I think this is still an attractive picture, just not a flawless one. Image detail does not stand out as you would expect from most high-def transfer and it seems likely the flaws are from the new restoration. It also seems likely that a greater than normal amount of digital correction was necessary. In brighter scenes, there is some blurring of detail with figures not standing out from the background, or just looking a bit soft in a buffed and overly-polished manner. B&W contrast is sharp and rich, however. It’s one of the weaker Criterion high-def transfers, but it’s not like that makes it a disaster. Just a mild disappointment. But as I’ve learned over the years, I don’t get nearly as worked up about the technical specs as some others do.
The linear PCM Mono audio track is crisp and distortion free. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The extras have all been imported from the 2008 SD release.
Susan White returns (from Criterion’s “La ronde” DVD) for this feature-length commentary, this time sharing the bill with Gaylyn Studlar. It is primarily a scholarly commentary, but I never felt that it sounded dry.
Paul Thomas Anderson puts down his milkshake long enough to provide some additional commentary for a few sequences (14 min). He’s more enthusiastic than insightful, and 14 minutes is plenty. Be warned, this feature gives away plot elements.
A “Visual Essay” (17 min.) by Tag Gallagher shows off the advantages of criticism in the digital format. Gallagher plays and replays specific shots from the film in order to analyze Ophuls’ unique mise-en-scene in great detail. I just wish this feature was much longer. An hour’s worth of this critical approach would be thoroughly compelling. Easily my favorite extra on this disc.
The Blu-ray also includes three interview with Ophuls collaborators: assistant director Alan Jessua (25 min.), co-writer Annette Wademant (7 min.) and assistant decorator Marc Frédérix (8 min.)
The final feature is a brief excerpt (5 min.) from an interview with novelist Louise de Vilmorin whose story was adapted for the film. She wasn’t happy about some of the changes. The excerpt is from the French TV series “Démons et merveilles du cinéma” and originally aired on Nov 20, 1965.
The thick insert booklet includes an essay by critic Molly Haskell, an excerpt from the 1962 book “Max Ophuls” by costume designer Georges Annenkov, and the original story by Louise de Vilmorin that served as the source material for the movie.
“The Earrings of Madame de…” is a masterpiece by any standard with every element working in unison: dynamic camerawork, an economical script (by Ophuls, Marcel Achard, and Annette Wademant), and vibrant performances, particularly by Darrieux. As Molly Haskell writes in the insert booklet, it’s quite shocking that “Madame De…” doesn’t appear more often on lists of the greatest films. It certainly deserves a place high in the canon.
The Blu-ray transfer doesn’t represent the usual upgrade over the SD release. Since there are no new extras, there’s no reason to double dip if you already own the 2008 Criterion disc.