Whatever you might say or think about Max Ophüls you have to admit that he was a pretty good cinematographer. His movies are always very pretty with well-considered camera angles, lighting and expressions on the actors. It is easy to see that he is of the German expressionist school and that he wants the pictures to speak. He also has an affinity for Belle Époque dramas which I suspect is partly due to his Viennese background and partly an excuse to create elaborate costume dramas.
“Madame de…” is all that and if this makes you tick then there is a lot to enjoy in this movie.
I however tend to focus on the characters and the story and in that department Ophüls has a bit of a problem. At least with me.
“Madame de…” is a triangle/costume drama, which means that we have a woman, the Madame without name (Danielle Darrieux and let us just call her character Louise), the husband, Count and General no name (Charles Boyer whom we will call André) and the lover Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica). We also have money, power, frivolity and repression and of course a chance to show off all those dresses and uniforms.
Louise is flirting with everything male, Donati have no qualms courting a woman married to a diplomatic colleague and the General is pretty pissed and wants to shoot Donati.
All the while I do not really care.
None of the characters are able to generate much sympathy from me. Louise is obviously bored and seeks to confirm herself through her flirtations. She is also an act of affected manners, frequent “faints” and idiotic self-pity. It is obvious that she will get herself in trouble and it is just as clear that she has no idea how to get herself out of the trouble except hope that some knight will safe her. Or that maybe her sulking and martyrdom will get her what she wish for. All in all not my kind of woman.
The General is most concerned with the appearance to the world, that he and his wife are presentable. To that end his idea of a marriage is to make it work and keep Louise under control. The method operandi is to keep it simple, play along and let his wife do what she wants within reason. This does not involve much intimacy, neither on the emotional nor on the physical plane. Is a trophy wife really enough? And can you just overrule her feelings, stupid as they may be? No, I do not like him much either, especially since he obviously practice what he forbids his wife.
What about lover-boy Donati? I think we are supposed to have some sympathy for him and certainly de Sica (yes, it is the famous Italian director) has the charm pedal on full throttle, but there is something wrong with him. He is a predator whose target is Louise and he seems to stop at nothing to get her. Until he realizes that she is not entirely honest with him at which point he loses interest and let her rot. As a diplomat he should know better. Even in the Belle Époque diplomacy was delicate to the extent that having a relationship with the wife of another diplomat is big no-no. The implications are just too severe to allow it. Yet Donati does not look back. Nope, he too is an ass.
What these three people do to each other really is no concern of mine.
It seems Ophüls is (again) telling a story about how the ruling class of old is caught between immense power to do whatever they fancy and a rigorous code that allow very little flexibility and in that game women usually come out short. This critique is in a sense in continuation of Renoir’s “La Regle du Jeu”, except that that one was much better. Here I just keep thinking “thank heavens for the divorce”.
If Louise divorced the general and moved in with Donati everything was solved and there would not be a movie. Alternatively when the General is stuck with a sulking and self-pitying wife he could just divorce her. Why should he ruin his (and her) life when clearly their relationship has expired? They have no children, nothing is really keeping them together. Insisting on it just feels so stupid.
You might argue that this movie takes place in a period where divorce is not an option, but it is made in 1953, at a time where divorce is becoming a reasonable thing to do. In that case this movie is a massive argument for divorce as a solution. Except that the movie never explorers that option. Instead it insists that these people are trapped and that is where I jump off. How can I be bothered to care for unsympathetic people who get themselves into trouble and insists to be stuck in it although the situation could be easily solved?
This movie may pretend to tell a story of romantic love, or of an elite trapped in its codes or of women banned from their emotions in a masculine world, but sadly it does not work. Instead I will just sit back and settle for the beautiful cinematography.