Lighter than air, elegant beyond reproach, Madame de... can lay claim at being Max Ophüls' final complete and unadulterated statement; the later Lola Montès, though technically his last film and for many his greatest achievement, was initially butchered upon release by its backers, gaining a deserved reputation as a blunted masterpiece, and the director died while shooting Montparnasse 19, completed by Jacques Becker. It's not difficult to see Madame de... as such, as this endlessly fascinating, sophisticated picture seems all of a masterfully handled piece as it glides effortlessly from the frothiest treat of French coquetterie into a feverish, desperate romantic tragedy, traced through the whirling dance of a pair of diamond earrings whose secret sale sets in motion a snowballing butterfly effect.

     Mr. Ophüls' dazzling lightness of touch is evident from the very first shot, a playful pan that tracks the opulent possessions of the title character, the flirty and vapid Louise (Danielle Darrieux), whose elegant marriage to older military officer Henri (Charles Boyer) is more of habit and convenience than of truly love. The travels of the earrings, a wedding gift from the besotted husband, in a throwback to Mr. Ophüls earlier La Ronde, lead them into the hands of a seductive Italian diplomat posted to Paris, baron Fabrizio (Vittorio de Sica), who enters a chaste affair with the ever-elusive Louise - and the consummate flirter finds herself caught at her own game, her desperate, passionate desires for Fabrizio rendering her aware of the nature of true love.

     What had until then seemed like a lighter-than-air confection suddenly reveals its gravitas, as the intimations of danger and playing with fire that Mr. Ophüls meticulously inserted through his sweeping pans and glides and the impeccably framed staging of the actors blossoms into full-blown, quasi-operatic drama (not surprisingly, Georges van Parys' score weaves themes from Viennese operetta composer Oscar Straus). For all that, Madame de... never raises its voice, keeping a hushed, subdued tone of exquisite elegance and refinement that is essential for its surface charms to hide the heightened, grandiose passions bubbling under the surface.

Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio de Sica; Jean Debucourt, Jean Galland, Mireille Perrey; Paul Azaïs, Josselin, Hubert Noël; Lia di Leo.
     Director, Max Ophüls; screenplay, Marcel Achard, Mr. Ophüls, Annette Wademant, from the novel by Louise de Vilmorin, Madame de...; cinematography, Christian Matras (b&w); music, Oscar Straus, Georges van Parys; production designer, A. J. d'Eaubonne; costume designers, Georges Annenkov, Rosine Delamare; editor, Borys Lewin; producers, Henri Baum, Ralph Baum (Franco-London Films, Indusfilms, Rizzoli Film), France/Italy, 1953, 100 minutes.
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Dr. Félix Ribeiro Theatre, Lisbon, January 31st 2012. 


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