Madame de… (1953)

“Unhappiness is our own invention. At times I’m sad that I lack the imagination for it.”

‘Madame de…’, directed by Max Ophüls in 1953, follows an unnamed aristocrat as she becomes involved in a love triangle during the Belle Époque in Paris. The shifting allegiances of her marriage and affair is charted through the journey of a pair of diamond earrings that are bought and sold, but always somehow end up back in her possession. It’s quite a contrast with the experimentation and subversion of ‘Funeral Parade of Roses’, Ophüls’ direction is masterful and the way he uses the camera adds life to the story. The plot itself is somewhat convoluted and melodramatic, but the gliding and swooping camera gives a real and unexpected energy, particularly to the ballroom dance scenes. It’s also strangely cynical about the opulence and decadence of the time, much like Jean Renoir’s ‘The Rules of the Game’ from 1939: the title character in particular is vain and fickle, lying to both her husband and her lover. The movie also doesn’t shy away from noting the hypocrisy of the male characters bartering and negotiating over the women as the women barter over jewellery. But beyond this critical subtext the direction and cinematography gleams and glitters like the earrings that the story pivots around. Highlights are the set-piece ballroom scene, nostalgically romantic in surface details but strikingly modern in staging and movement. It’s also strange to see Vittorio De Sica, the director of ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘Umberto D’ appearing as an actor in such a prominent role, that of the lover. This follows a trend of cameo appearances and larger performances by notable directors such as Pasollini, Erich von Stroheim and Werner Herzog who elect to step in front of the camera.

Would I recommend it? Yes – I would watch it in a thematic double-bill with ‘The Rules of the Game’, or perhaps a slightly more experimental suggestion would be to compare it with ‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’: two depictions of Paris from different times and contrasting social spheres, but each telling their story with an unexpected kinetic energy.

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