The Earrings of Madame de...
If he had made a few more movies, and made them a few years earlier, Max Ophuls would be recognized as one of the shining lights of classic German, French, or American cinema today. Instead, Ophuls, who was just getting his start in the German film industry when the Nazis came to power in 1933, spent cinema's golden decade on the run, not arriving in Hollywood until 1941, and not making a movie until 1947.
Between 1947 and 1955, though, Ophuls' filmmaking matched Orson Welles' technical proficiency and Ernst Lubitsch's light romantic touch. Although Ophuls' death in 1957 ended his career prematurely, the eight movies he made in those years, almost all about the fretful lives of 19th-century European bourgeoisie, use tracking shots and elaborate sets to turn the most trite stories into diamonds.
His 1953 The Earrings of Madame De . . . , who is never named in the movie, tells one of those stories, about a wealthy, beautiful woman (Danielle Darrieux) who is constantly hocking her jewels in order to live beyond the allowance set by her stern husband. She finally gathers enough money to make her escape and find her true love but, not surprisingly, discovers that leaving her old life, and her jewels, is more difficult than it should be.
Much of Madame consists of set pieces that the Marx Brothers or Wes Anderson might have used to spawn more gags, but Ophuls, too close to the story, uses his over-the-top crane and dolly shots to show how the earrings travel up and down winding staircases, between lovers, and across continents, only to land back on the ears of Madame. While our heart goes out to Madame, the movie's celebration of her vanity makes it easy to love and mock, and although Ophuls admirers included Stanley Kubrick, many critics find his movies too shallow for study. Ophuls' movies are also sadly difficult to find, although Criterion is releasing Madame, along with two of his other early-'50s movies, on DVD in September.
When Ophuls worked in Hollywood in the late '40s he was credited as Max Opuls, and was usually tossed into the same weepy melodrama bin as fellow German émigré Douglas Sirk. Hollywood's fierce movie branding meant that Ophuls never got treated as an A-list director, not even by the proto-camp standards set by Sirk. But Madame is a far richer movie than any of Sirk's work, and not just because its camerawork outdoes almost anything achieved before 1960. Madame asks us if a monetary value can be placed on love and, secure that the answer is no, tries in every cinematic way to prove us wrong. True love is fleeting, but, oh, those earrings.