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In the Paris of the late 19th century, Louise, wife of a general, sells the earrings her husband gave her as a wedding gift: she needs money to cover her debts. The general secretly buys the earrings again and gives them to his mistress, Lola, leaving to go to Constantinople. Where an Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, buys them. Back to Paris, Donati meets Louise... So now Louise discovers love and becomes much less frivolous. Written by
There is little of praise I can add to what others have said. I would like to address the comments of those who don't like the film because they find Louise unworthy of their admiration or sympathy. (There are two threads on the board that raise the same objection, and one quotes a review that calls her a "dick.")
Do you feel sympathy for Humbert Humbert? Or for Emma Bovary? Or for Anna Karenina? Or for the Vicomte de Valmont?
People are certainly free not to like the directing style of Max Ophuls or the performance styles of his actors. But in the negative reactions to this film, and especially to the character of Louise, I detect a strong whiff of anachronistic response, and an inability to see the film in the context of its time and place, not to mention the characters in the context of their society. It also seems to me that many people have a sort of high school notion that you have to find a character admirable in order to feel sorry for her. Or, for that matter, that you have to feel sympathy for a character in order to be moved by her story.
The irony of "Madame de. . ." is that it turns out that the character with the deepest and most constant emotions is the General, who has concealed the depth of his feelings for Louise because it is not the fashion to be in love with one's own wife. He follows the rules; he has mistresses; he doesn't mind Louise's lovers too much as long she too follows the rules. He can't handle it when she strays outside the lines, and it is HIS behavior, not hers, that finally ruins them all.
The art of "Madame de..." is that the lush setting and sense of a society that lives on ersatz emotion prepares us to be caught up in the ecstasy of Louise's immolation as the emotions become real. That doesn't mean that the Baron is really the Romeo to her Juliet, or that (artistically speaking) he needs to be. In her review of "The Story of Adèle H.," Pauline Kael comments on what a pathetically inadequate object of obsession Lt. Pinson constitutes. Indeed, late in the film, when Adèle passes him on the street, she doesn't even notice him. The Baron is also a rather bland love object, and it is true that we have little sense of how far their affair has progressed, or if he would even want Louise to leave her husband for him. (That is not, after all, how the game is played.) In the Garbo "Camille," Robert Taylor's Armand is utterly unworthy of her, and I've never seen a version of "Anna Karenina" where the Vronsky seemed worth ruining oneself over--or who, for that matter, really seemed to WANT Anna to leave her husband for him.
Louise's tragedy is that her understanding of the game, of which she is a typically petty and only somewhat skilled player (she has, after all, already skirted the edge of ruin by falling deeply into debt), does not prepare her for actual love. Once there she tries to behave well, but events spiral out of the control of all the characters once they are outside of the predictable game. We don't even have to see a redemption in the completeness with which she gives herself up to her love, or her making herself ill over it; her behavior is by and large selfish and unconcerned with the feelings of anyone other than herself. If not a redemption she does have a kind of saving grace: she doesn't ask for pity or understanding (although she does ask for forgiveness), and she does achieve a kind of understanding of herself when she admits near the end that she is hopelessly vain.
What makes "Madame de. . ." a great film, though, is how we see the General, Louise, and even the bland Baron become human as they step outside the rules of the game, and the way in which the art of Ophuls prepares us for the exaltation of Louise's destruction. You don't have to pity her to be moved by the emotion of it. You may even find a dreadful comedy in it, as one does with Humbert. Humbert knows how unworthy he is as a figure of tragedy; Valmont realizes with a bitter sense of irony that he has destroyed himself with his own clever pettiness. Louise lacks those levels of insight, as well as their degree of villainy, but her lack of credentials to be a great heroine is itself moving. At the end, when she finally destroys herself, it seems to be, at last, in her first more-or-less-selfless gesture-- ambiguous, though, as everything in Ophuls is.
Perhaps Renoir (the allusion to him above being deliberate) could have made these characters more sympathetic, or made us feel more tenderness for unsympathetic characters. (Renoir could make us feel tenderness for a rock.) But Ophuls is not as purely focused on the human heart as Renoir; he always sees the absurd social animal, as well. I think it is more appropriate with Ophuls to have that distancing, as we have when we read "Madame Bovary."
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