This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the snarky, clueless kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.
This Saturday's ASUW films in 130 Kane are Vittoria De Sica's last film "A Brief Vacation" with Florinda Balkan, and a film starring De Sica—Max Ophüls' "The Earrings of Madame De...".
"The Earrings of Madame De..." (Max Ophüls, 1975) "Fate is working for us," says one of the main characters in "The Earrings of Madame De..." (or "Madame De..." as it is officially known)—we never do find out her name, Ophüls keeps her coyly anonymous. And although Fate is working, it certainly is not for anyone or thing, but for its own morbid amusement. For Fate works seeming miracles of coincidence in the second revolution of plot that force people to double back on their behavior of the first go-'round. It's a movie about a love triangle—Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica—but the events move in a circle. When the first revolution is made when Madame de... receives a gift of diamonds from DeSica—the exact pair of earrings that Boyer originally gave her on their wedding day (and that she had hocked because they were her least favorite item) the results are of the O. Henry super-twist variety. *
The plot moves in a circle, but so, also, do the physical aspects of the film, the camera work. It spins. it rises and falls. It dances in this film along with the lines of the plot. Time doesn't matter, nor does space, but the tracks of the camera or the many circles inscribed in them are obsessive, more so than in the cinema of Stanley Kubrick (who claims Ophüls as his chief inspiration) or in Brian DePalma's films.
You may get the impression that the film was originally video-taped because nobody makes such opulently lush camera movements for movies any more, but only in some of the more fluidly directed video plays for TV.
It's a pity, for it's an extremely lyrical way to make films, and "Madame de..." is, if nothing else, lyrical.
* And in making a plot summary as dense as that in one convoluted sentence, I realize just how complicated this film really is. It may see a little slow to you, as it did to me the first time at 10 pm after a full day at (the radio station). But in making that little summary I have to admit how full this movie is, so pay attention to what Ophuls is doing in the film and you'll find out just how much Ophüls does in this, his next-to-last film. O.K. Digression is over. Back to the geometry of Ophüls.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM on February 5-6th, 1976
To quote "Pat and Mike:" "there's not much meat on her, but what there is is cherce." I didn't say a lot in this review (I remember doing that when I was exceptionally pressed for time, and evidently I was), but what I did say—including giving away the big plot-point of the movie—got right to the bone in an indirect way. You might say I circum-navigated the point.
Which is the point. I was entirely correct (for once) to use the term geometry for "Madame de..." and the cinema of Ophüls, in general. Those gliding moves of the camera—so much more elegant than in most movies—almost make you fall into the frame, while at the same time revealing the fleeting aspects of life. It does feel like video-tape, so three-dimensional is the navigation of the camera through the doorways and portico's and chock-a-block chiaroscuro of the set design, you feel like you're floating through that world, living it in a dream-fugue, an out-of-body experience, as opposed to sitting like a lump before a flat screen in a theater. They informed the movie, gave you a sense of being part of it and actively watching it. Kubrick tried to achieve that state in his similar camera-moves throughout his career, and while they were technically proficient, they always felt a bit mechanical, a bit more removed than Ophüls was able to achieve (No wonder Kubrick glommed onto the gyro-scoped, floating Steadi-cam as soon as it was invented). In that way Ophüls' staging and navigation through it reflect being part of the plot and its life. The movement IS life and experience. Ophüls was able to achieve a visceral way of drawing the audience into the film, rather than merely presenting it.
If you get the chance to see this, or any Ophüls film, make an effort.