Madame de...

France/Italy 1953, 100 mins
Director: Max Ophuls

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

Opulence exudes from every frame of this tale of adultery and deception, sparked by the debt-induced sale of earrings in 19th-century Paris. Ophuls’ sweeping camera dances with the characters in a world of illicit meetings, loaded glances and double entendre. But there is tragedy lurking beneath each slow dissolve and tightly cinched corset – the perfect example of style reflecting substance.
Ruby McGuigan,

Madame de… is almost completely studio-bound, the story for the most part acted out within elaborate interiors. Shooting began on 8 April 1953 in the Studios de Boulogne on the Seine. The story was based on a novel by Louise de Vilmorin about a pair of earrings causing a woman’s downfall. Georges Annenkov, the costume designer, recalled Ophuls telling him that the jewels were the only thing which really interested him. They provided the axis around which the action constantly turned, like a carousel. A small accessory of a woman’s wardrobe which imposes its presence, and comes to dominate the destinies of the characters, leading them finally to their tragic end.

The story hangs heavily on coincidence and chance, but by this device, Ophuls emphasises the small world of privilege, the gilded cage. There are nineteen transfers of the jewels, and each exchange adds depth and builds another layer of symbolic significance. Ophuls’ style is one of rich visual impact, honed to perfection with his team of close collaborators, including Annenkov, photographer Christian Matras and art director Jean d’Eaubonne. And Madame de… is one of their polished essays about the dominance of objects; the decor, material surroundings and accessories of the characters forming the narrative drive and becoming the raison d’être of the story.

The film begins with a long tracking shot devoted to careful exploration of Louise’s boudoir. In an extraordinary single-take, a woman is introduced through her possessions. All that is seen of her is a gloved hand searching through jewels, furs and dresses as she ponders what to sell. She knocks a bible to the floor, regrets aloud the absence of her mother, and finally settles on the earrings her husband gave her, on the grounds that ‘I can do with them as I please.’ She holds them up, and only then is her face glimpsed framed, or rather imprisoned, within an ornate mirror.

Madame de… is about questions of social status. Ophuls chose to place Vilmorin’s contemporary story within the fin de siècle period, because society at that time still conformed to a set of rules, a code of honour. A society in which every social position was still clearly defined and interconnected, but was on the brink of upheaval. A perennial theme in Ophuls’ work was glittering, decadent societies in decline, and his camera relentlessly pursues elegant creatures up and down palatial staircases; momentarily frames them against pillars or views them through windows, through mists of lace, or just catches their reflection in ornamental mirrors.

The restless movement betrays the transience of this belle époque, the fleeting nature of pleasure and happiness and the pain beneath the surface gaiety and glamour. The monochrome look of the film emphasises both the elegance and the determinedly old-fashioned nature of this world. It is rococo rather than Art Nouveau. Bernhardt is mentioned as a new phenomenon and then dismissed. A society which clings to the past, to a rose-tinted view of the ancien régime, deeply suspicious of the present, let alone the future.

Madame de… portrays the beau monde, the respectable world of married society where flirtation is an accepted game, but passion is not. A world which still holds the view that if a wife does not abide by the social code, she will pay the price, however beautiful, admired and seemingly secure in her position. A brilliant society that functions to music – at balls, the opera, smart restaurants and soirées – and the illicit love between Donati and Louise (Vittorio De Sica and Danielle Darrieux) develops through a series of repeated gallantries exchanged through a continuous waltz.

They begin to dance, the camera tracking them round the floor. There is a dissolve and they are dancing at another ball, then another and another. Their costumes change, but they turn ceaselessly, past pillars, paintings, sculpture, fountains, displays of ferns and palms, by tall draped windows, beneath massive chandeliers… the room gradually empties, the full orchestra dwindles to a quartet. It gets later. At the end, they dance alone, in their overcoats and gloves, to a single piano. A footman walks around extinguishing the lights and the scene ends in total eclipse.

In this stylised sequence; a journey is taken from frivolity to solemnity, from extravagance to simplicity, from light to dark. In fact, the whole film marks a journey away from gaiety, from the lavish boudoir to the austere church where the earrings eventually rest. The transience of this society, and the passion blossoming briefly within it, is most aptly demonstrated in a particularly breath-taking example of Ophuls’ technique, in which the torn pieces of Louise’s love letter from Donati turn into falling snowflakes. Nothing is permanent; these beautiful creatures are victims of chance, fate and the passage of time.
Caroline Dunant, Sight and Sound, Winter 1990-91

Director: Max Ophuls
Production Companies: Franco London Film (Paris), Indusfilm, Rizzoli Editore
Unit Production Manager: André Hoss
Production Managers: H. Baum, R. Baum
1st Assistant Directors: Marc Maurette, Willy Picard
Script Supervisor: Francine Corteggiani
Screen Adaptation by: Marcel Achard, Max Ophuls, Annette Wademant
Dialogue: Marcel Achard
Based on the novel by: Louise de Vilmorin
Director of Photography: Christian Matras
Camera Operator: Alain Douarinou
Art Director: A.J. D’Eaubonne
Set Decorator: Maurice Barnathan
Costumes: Georges Annenkov, Rosine Delamare
Wardrobe: Georgette Fillon
Make-up Supervisor: Carmen Brel
Music: Oscar Straus, Georges Van Parys
Sound: Antoine Petitjean
Studio: Studios de Boulogne
Producer: Henry Deutschmeister
Assistant Unit Manager: Jean Pieuchot
Production Administrator: Fritz Kretschmer
Location Manager: Charles Chieusse
Production Secretary: Simone Bouvet
Technical Collaborator: René Moulin
Technician: Henri Chenu
2nd Assistant Director: Tony Aboyantz
Trainee Assistant Director: Alain Jessua
Camera Assistants: Ernest Bourreaud, Henri Champion
Stills: Raymond Voinquel
Portrait Stills: Sam Levin
Special Effects: François Sune
Editor: Boris Lewin
Assistant Editor: Laure Cassau
Assistant Art Directors: Jacques Gut, Marc Frédérix
Set Dresser: Robert Christidès
Props: Louis Boussaroque, Albert Arnou
Tapestries: Maurice Bourbotte
Costumers: Mado Chaucha, Josette Laurier, Lucienne Magot
Make-up Assistant: Janine Cassé
Hairdresser: Jean Lalaurette
Wigs: Jules Chanteau
Musical Themes: Giacomo Meyerbeer
Lyrics: Louis Ducreux
Sound Technician: Fernand Janisse
Boom Operator: Gaston Ancessi
Publicity: Georges Cravenne

Charles Boyer (General André de…)
Danielle Darrieux (Countess Louise de…)
Vittorio De Sica (Baron Fabrizio Donati)
Jean Debucourt (M Rémy, the jeweller)
Jean Galland (M de Bernac)
Mireille Perrey (Louise’s maid)
Paul Azaïs (first coachman)
Hubert Noël (Henri de Malleville)
Lia Di Leo (Lola, André’s mistress)
Serge Lecointe (Jérôme Rémy, the jeweller’s son)
Jean Degrave (club patron)
Madeleine Barbulée (Louise’s friend)
Georges Vitray (old journalist)
Léon Walther (theatre manager)
Guy Favières (Julien, André’s servant)
Jean Toulout (ambassador)
Germaine Stainval (ambassador’s wife)
Jacques Beauvais (majordomo)
Robert Moor (diplomat)
Claire Duhamel (maid)
Emile Genevois (guard)
Colette Régis (candle seller)
Albert Michel (second coachman)
Georges Paulais (first duel second)
Michel Salina (second duel second)
Gérard Buhr (customs officer)
Léon Pauléon (doorman)
Roger Vincent
Charles Bayard
René Worms
Max Mégy

France/Italy 1953
100 mins

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Sun 1 Jan 14:10; Thu 5 Jan 18:40; Fri 20 Jan 14:00
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Sun 1 Jan 15:50; Fri 27 Jan 14:30; Mon 30 Jan 17:50
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Tue 3 Jan 18:10; Wed 4 Jan 20:30; Thu 19 Jan 20:30
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Tue 3 Jan 18:20; Sun 22 Jan 10:00 BFI IMAX; Sat 28 Jan 13:40
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Tue 3 Jan 18:30; Sat 28 Jan 20:30
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Tue 3 Jan 20:30; Thu 12 Jan 18:15 (+ intro)
Ugetsu Monogatari
Tue 3 Jan 20:50; Tue 17 Jan 20:30
Madame de…
Wed 4 Jan 14:30; Fri 20 Jan 18:10 (+ intro by Ruby McGuigan, Cultural Programme Manager)
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Wed 4 Jan 18:40; Sun 22 Jan 14:00 (+ intro by Hyun Jin Cho, Film Programmer, BFI Festivals)
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Fri 6 Jan 20:10; Tue 10 Jan 20:10; Sat 21 Jan 20:30 BFI IMAX
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Sat 7 Jan 12:10; Sun 22 Jan 12:30 BFI IMAX
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Thu 26 Jan 18:40; Sun 29 Jan 17:20

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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