The French do heartbreak so well. Here’s a costume drama set in Belle Époque Paris, the story of a fatal passion between a married aristocratic woman, Louise, and an Italian diplomat, Donati. Louise’s husband André, a general, discovers the affair and puts an end to it. You think it’s his pride that’s wounded, but it’s really his heart.
“Learn to hide your feelings as well as you lie,” he tells Louise. He himself is a master of self-control, but you see what it costs André to maintain his cool exterior. Louise is wallowing in her sorrow after she loses Donati. What distresses her the most is the realization that she drove her lover away by lying to him in a desperate bid to keep him. “Forgive me. I’ve gotten lost in all your stories,” Donati says. His parting shot.
So there’s Louise, lying on a chaise longue in her darkened bedroom. Pale, appetite gone, along with the sparkle that used to draw men like moths to a flame. She no longer seems to care whether she lives or dies, so filled is she with self-pity. “The woman I’ve become suffers because of the woman I was,” she complains. But André will no longer indulge her moods. “Unhappiness is our own invention,” he says wearily. “At times I’m sad I lack the imagination for it.”
The stuff of melodrama, but conveyed with such subtlety! Critic Andrew Sarris called “The Earrings of Madame de…” the most perfect film ever made. He’s right: every shot is beautifully framed, the costumes and period details are exquisite, the acting is out of this world.
In a famous sequence that charts the deepening attraction between the lovers, Louise and Donati are filmed waltzing for nine minutes. Their outfits change, signifying the passage of time, but what you notice is how he holds her. The pressure of his hand on her back, the tender way he guides her around the room. The camera revolves around the couple. We’re caught up in the endless whirl, and it takes a moment before we notice that they’re the only people left on the floor. The musicians are packing up, a servant is putting out the candles, but Louise and Donati continue to dance, gazing into one another’s eyes.
I’d never seen this picture, although I’m a big fan of the director, Max Ophüls. Now I’ve seen it twice.
(6 June 2011)