Watching back to back Ophuls is like having a bit too much champagne – the costumes, the tapestries, the elegant glances begin to overwhelm the senses and go right to your head. In this regard, maybe I should have waited for the glorious high of La Ronde to pass before sitting down with Le Plaisir, because the many obvious pleasures of the latter seem redundant and flimsy in comparison. Not to say Le Plaisir isn’t a beautiful and entrancing experience, just not that memorable. Ophuls weaves three stories by Guy du Maupassant into distinct short vignettes, moral lessons on romantic yearning and desire concerned with class, gender, and of course, sex. Yet the very format of the film – disconnected narratives – takes away from the overall impact each story is supposed to relate, separating Ophuls’ themes over various temporal and spatial grounds, diluting them in the process. Like all Ophuls, tragic love and fate define Le Plaisir, but the subversive undercurrents of The Earrings of Madame de… and La Ronde are noticeably absent.
La Ronde, with its hypnotic camera movements and circular narrative, beautifully fulfills the whimsy of fated love. However, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece is one of the most uncomfortably subversive Romance pictures ever. As each fleeting couple momentarily begins and abruptly ends, the playful tone masks a consistent sense of disappointment and longing. Seduction and lust often substitute for genuine connection, while the only substantial element connecting each vignette is the art of off-screen sex. Ophuls is a master of capturing the sporadic moments of silence shared between lovers at the worst possible moment, when one or the other decides to pull away, or leave altogether. No one character in La Ronde is spared this heartache, yet the women in the film (except for the actress) seem more at odds with the reality of love than the men, who not ironically care more for the perception of their own ego in relation to love. La Ronde weaves a delightful tapestry of oscillating romantic dilemmas, but underscores each smile, each kiss, and each glance with an artificial sensibility that transcends the medium.
Ahh, the webs we weave. Circa, early 20th century Paris, The Earrings of Madame de… begins with a simple “white lie” told by Madame Louise, a wealthy but bored socialite, to her a seemingly benign husband, a General in the French army, concerning a glamourous pair of earrings. Louise needs to sell them in order to pay off a growing debt. To cover this action, she tells the General the jewels are lost, setting off a brilliant and tangled web of lies and deception that will inevitably affects everyone involved. Narratively, Ophuls stays with the earrings as they change hands from one character to the next. An Italian ambassador named Donati (played by legendary film director Vittorio de Sica) inadvertently buys the earrings, then meets and falls in love with the Madame, sending each character into a furry of heartache caused by the most random chance encounter.
Little lies turn into larger ones, the consequences miniscule at first, but as one would expect, get larger and more life threatening. Madame de.. feels fresh compared to a lot of the modern films labeled as romantic. Ophuls and cameraman Christian Matras immediately create a graceful camera style, namely the opening long take of the Madame deciding what she’s going to sell, finally spying the earrings after a long search; one little decision deciding her fate all in one motion. Also, the script is flat out brilliant, weaving characters in an out of each others lives, breeding tension in the smallest details, never feeling contrived even though it’ so blatantly meant to be. You can’t help but feel sorry for each sucker in Madame de…, even though everyone lies through their teeth as if it were the one common denominator in wealthy Parisian society.
With Madame de… and it’s American counterpart, Letter From an Unknown Woman, director Max Ophuls has crafted probably the best “romantic weepy” double feature ever. Film critic Andrew Sarris called Madame de.. the best film of all time and I can see what he means. A genuine epic romance, the kind filled with chance, deception, lies, and doomed love, the kind they don’t make anymore without dumbing down the story and sentimentalizing the characters. Madame de… remains a masterpiece due to it’s articulation of human weakness, specifically the attempts to solve unrequited love and in turn the daft reactions to seemingly unimportant conflicts, often secretly and inanely underlined by pride and prejudice.