- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

It was once customary, especially among European admirers, to regard Max Ophuls’ return to France in 1950 as a kind of artistic deliverance.

According to this school of oversimplification, a discouraging period of professional exile in Hollywood, from 1942 to the close of the decade, had given way to a dazzling comeback in Paris, the director’s original refuge from 1933 to 1940. (Born Max Oppenheimer in Germany, he fled the Nazi regime in his native country and then the Nazi occupation in his adopted country.)

The notion of a vast disparity in cinematic achievement between Mr. Ophuls’ Hollywood period and his concluding French period no longer prevails. Apart from time wasted under contract to the supremely erratic Howard Hughes, Mr. Ophuls was not at a dreadful disadvantage within the American film industry.

Three of the four features he completed in Hollywood enjoy sturdy reputations: “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “Caught” and “The Reckless Moment.” So do three of the four features he completed in France - “La Ronde,” “Le Plaisir” and “The Earrings of Madame de …” - before suffering a fatal heart attack in 1957, at age 55.

The final Ophuls movie, “Lola Montes,” now in revival at the Landmark E Street Cinema, proved a conspicuous disappointment in 1955, so triumph did not accompany the end of his career. He was busy promoting and preparing new projects rather than basking in esteem. If he had lived a bit longer, the projects might have fallen into place a little easier, since Max Ophuls was about to be championed by a new generation of French critics and filmmakers.

In an interview appended to the new DVD edition of “La Ronde,” Marcel Ophuls, who attended Hollywood High School, Occidental College and the University of California at Berkeley during his family’s American sojourn, helps put things in perspective. The younger Mr. Ophuls (now 81) became a famous documentary filmmaker in the 1970s with “The Sorrow and the Pity.” He recalls that his father’s return to France facilitated something very practical and gratifying: a “rediscovery” of the country and its filmmaking resources.

Max Ophuls promptly recruited a group of associates who remained with him for the last group of films, notably cinematographer Christian Matras, production designer Jean d’Eaubonne and costume designer Georges Annenkov. A magnet for both established and rising French stars, the repatriated director also sustained a collaboration with actress Danielle Darrieux that culminated in an exceptional meeting of instruments in their third consecutive project, “Madame de …” A seemingly bemused and sardonic account of marital infidelity, set among aristocrats in the late 19th century, the movie acquires gravely serious and eventually tragic attributes while depicting a love affair that boomerangs on the title character, a flirtatious countess played by Miss Darrieux.

The movie reunited her with Charles Boyer, her co-star in the 1936 version of “Mayerling,” which also elegized an ill-fated romance. Miss Darrieux, now 91 and a 77-year veteran of the French screen, was still a teenager when cast in “Mayerling.” An adornment to all-star ensembles in “La Ronde” and “Le Plaisir,” she became the wounded heart and soul of “Madame de …” by bringing a remarkable blend of delicacy and intensity to the concept of a vain, shallow woman whose capacity for heartache and suffering proves improbably formidable and haunting.

Mr. Boyer, about 20 years older, is cast as her quietly fuming husband, who hopes to finesse her infatuation with Vittorio De Sica as an Italian diplomat. Eventually, the undeceived but embittered spouse comes to resent her betrayal so profoundly that he becomes a perverse virtuoso at reprisals.

The elusive diamond earrings that play a recurrent role in the heroine’s downfall can be cherished as a luxury-class “MacGuffin,” alluding to Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the precious something-or-other characters pursue obsessively in suspense stories. This specimen even exists, unlike the replica of the figurine uncovered in “The Maltese Falcon” or the phantom spy, George Kaplan, in Hitchcock’s wonderful runaround, “North By Northwest.”

Alain Jessua, a retired filmmaker who was a young assistant director on “Madame de …” recalls the Ophuls unit as an extremely tight-knit team, dedicated to the elegant sense of period evocation and fluid sense of camera movement that distinguished the director’s style. Mr. Jessua’s recollections are among the most informative ever gleaned for the DVD edition of a classic film. Contributions of a similar stature are hard to find. The necessary longevity must be enhanced by an attractive temperament.

For contrarian perspective, the DVD also preserves snatches of an interview with Louise de Vilmorin, the author of the novella that inspired “Madame de …” Evidently, the film version did not please her in the slightest. Her quality of disdain is rather grand and is reinforced by a prop - some kind of pointer or cane that one imagines being flicked at the filmmakers, if only they were still in reach. A character who resembled her might have given the movie an additional comic distinction.

Having had ample time to formulate her discontent, Miss de Vilmorin sums it up vividly: “They didn’t get one thing right. It’s like receiving a pretty box labeled ‘silk stockings’ and inside you find … nail clippers. So, of course I’m complaining. Besides, the movie’s boring.” Whack, whack, whack. The author makes Charles Boyer’s character look like a softie.

TITLE: “The Earrings of Madame de …”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (made in France in 1953, years before the advent of the film rating system; thematic emphasis on adultery)

CREDITS: Directed by Max Ophuls. Screenplay by Marcel Archard, Mr. Ophuls and Annette Wademant, based on the novella by Louise de Vilmorin. Cinematography by Christian Matras. Sets by Jean d’Eaubonne. Costumes by Georges Annenkov and Rosine Delamare. Music by Oscar Straus and Georges van Parys. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes, plus supplementary material

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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