The Sad Tomorrow that Follows the Sprightly Ball: Max Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame de…

Cinematekene er et samarbeid om felles digitale visninger på cinematekene i Bergen, Kristiansand, Lillehammer, Oslo, Stavanger, Tromsø og Trondheim. Montages setter gjennom ukentlige artikler fokus på filmene i utvalget. Max OphülsThe Earrings of Madame de… (1953) vises fra og med tirsdag 24. april – sjekk tidspunkter i oversikten hos ditt cinematek.


Max Ophüls was for a long time a misunderstood director. His last film, Lola Montès (1955), came only a year before French cinemagoers witnessed the birth of a fresh-faced, modern youth cinema with Brigitte Bardot’s scandalous performance in Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman («Et Dieu…créa la femme»), Agnès Varda’s La Pointe-Courte, and Chris Marker’s documentary Sunday in Peking («Dimanche à Pékin»).

These initial tremors of the French New Wave made Ophüls’ classical style of mise-en-scène seem frivolous and his turn-of-the-century costume dramas seem old-fashioned. Critics often confused his decadent sets, pretty belle époque settings and the technical wizardry of his mobile camera with empty style, superficiality, even snobbishness. New Wave director François Truffaut, a great admirer of Ophüls, called The Earrings of Madame de… the most misunderstood of his films.1

For him, any misunderstanding surrounding Ophüls’ work stemmed from the director’s own modesty and from the fact that he preferred to discuss great composers and writers rather than his own films or artistic vision.2 But what really makes Ophüls a director like no other is his ability to tell dark, tragic stories with an opulent, decorative style of mise-en-scène. In the midst of the most enchanting ballroom scene, an ironic aside from a marginal character or fateful movement of the camera can hint to a hidden darkness that lies just below the glimmering surface of mirrors, chandeliers, pearls and diamonds. His tales of the cold, murderous dawns that can follow the gaiety of endless champagne nights are undoubtedly colored by his experiences of living through the highs and lows of prewar Europe.

When his penultimate film Madame de… was released in 1953, Ophüls was a veteran of the French film industry with a long and illustrious career behind him. Originally from the Saar, a German border region – which at various points during the twentieth century became French territory – Ophüls changed his name from Oppenheimer, not to mask his Jewishness, as some suggest, but rather to save his respectable family the embarrassment of a son pursuing the dramatic arts.

Beginning as an actor, Ophüls soon found his calling in directing, first for the theatre and later for the cinema. His talents were such that at the age of 23, Ophüls was already directing plays at the prestigious Austrian National Theatre in Vienna.3 With the emergence of new sound technologies, Ophüls moved into filmmaking at the UFA studios in Berlin. He was only there a short time before the rising tide of Nazism in Germany forced him to leave for France with his wife and son Marcel Ophüls (known for the Oscar-nominated documentary The Sorrow and the Pity). The latter recounts in an interview that they left in a two-seat convertible with only two suitcases in the trunk.4

Ophüls was one of many German Jewish film industry professionals who fled Germany for France. Others included Robert Wiene, G.W. Pabst, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang. This meant that when Ophüls set to work on his first film there in 1933 – Love Story («Une Histoire d’amour»), a multiple-language version of his German film Liebelei – Paris was a melting-pot where film studio lunchrooms were filled with lively conversation in French, German, Italian, Russian and English. Ophüls made several films in France with Jewish emigré producers, including Man Stolen («On a volé un homme», 1934) with Erich Pommer and Werther («Le roman de Werther», 1938) with Seymour Nebenzal. Pommer was arguably the greatest producer in Europe at the time of his move to Paris. In September 1933, while Hitler was addressing the Nuremberg rally famously filmed by Leni Riefenstal, Pommer confided his optimism in Franco-German film collaboration to one newspaper, saying, “I want young French directors to work and train under Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls.”5

Pommer’s ideal turned out to be true, as Ophüls did support emerging young talents, employing Colette’s daughter as assistant director on Divine in 1935 and in 1955 offering employment to Truffaut as a trainee assistant on his final film Lola Montès. Ophüls, disappointed when Truffaut turned down the position, told the young Cahiers du cinéma critic: “I have the feeling, without being able to explain why, that you are going to be someone of importance in the art of the cinema.”6 When Germany invaded France in 1940, Ophüls became one of many emigré directors in Hollywood, and after a difficult start he made four films there, the most critically successful being Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) starring Joan Fontaine. Ophüls returned to Paris in 1950, ostensibly to make La Duchesse de Langeais with Greta Garbo and James Mason, but when nothing came of it, he made his four final masterpieces in a period of only five years: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), Madame de… (1953), and Lola Montès (1955).

In his films Ophüls returned time and time again to the fin-de-siècle capitals of European culture, capturing the spirit of 1900 romance in Vienna and Paris. In Madame de… we find ourselves in multilingual cosmopolitanism of turn-of-the-century Paris. The film includes dialogue in French, Turkish, German and Italian. The director’s jouissance in this ideal of a borderless, multilingual Europe should also be read through his experiences making films in 1930s Europe, a decade in which he directed a French and German cast in Love Story (1933), an Italian cast in Everybody’s Woman («La Signora di tutti», 1934) and a Dutch cast in the film The Trouble With Money («Komedie om geld», 1936). The dark side of this borderless ideal of Europe multi-culturalism, however, is the danger of being caught between borders, without a homeland, a theme that saturates Madame de… thanks to Ophüls’ mastery of mise-en- scène and cinematography.

Max Ophüls: Master of Mise-en-Scène

Madame de… is a loose adaptation of a short story by popular novelist Louise de Vilmorin. At the time of its release much of the attraction of the film would have been to see one great director (Ophüls) directing another (Vittorio Di Sica). In Madame de… Ophüls displays the fluid tracking shots and majestic long takes that make up his signature style. With his mobile, virtuosic camera caressing the lavish set design by regular collaborator Jean D’Eaubonne, Ophüls tells the story of the Countess Louise (Danielle Darrieux), who is trapped in a loveless marriage to General André (Charles Boyer).

The tragic apparatus is set into motion when Louise sells a pair of heart-shaped diamond earrings given to her by her husband as a wedding present. After pretending to have lost them, her husband finds out the truth and re-gifts the earrings to his mistress Lola (Lia di Leo). After Lola pawns them at a casino in Constantinople, Baron Donati (Di Sica) buys them in one of the city’s jewelry stores and, in a strange twist of fate, travels to Paris, falls in love with Louise, and offers the earrings to her as a token of his love. When Louise fails to reveal the truth about the earrings, the Baron breaks off their (platonic) relationship, leading Louise into a downward spiral of grief that is worsened by her husband’s cruel behavior as he forces her to give them to his cousin in the countryside and eventually kills Baron Donati in a duel.

The film captures Ophüls’ taste for the romanesque, including loving farewells on bustling train platforms, duels at dawn, mirrored ballrooms, scandals in Opera boxes, majestic foyers with palatial staircases and sleepless nights in luxury railway carriages. We can easily understand why Laura Mulvey says that “the film almost feels like an Ophüls compendium.”7 In addition to such tropes, however, Ophüls’ relies upon the expressivity of his mise-en-scène to tell the story through visual means.

In Madame de… we do not have an on-screen narrator to tell the story as in La Ronde, Letter from an Unknown Woman and Lola Montès. In Madame de… Ophüls instead places much of the weight of meaning on the mise-en-scène, pushing cinema’s power of visual storytelling to the extreme limit in a seemingly effortless tour de force. By divesting the film of a narrator’s voice, he invests his decor with the dimensions of the story and his camera with the freedom to tell it. In doing so, Ophüls simultaneously communicates the impossibility of communicating true love in words.

The most moving scene of the film is undoubtedly that in which Louise accompanies the Baron to the door and, leaning against it in desperation – much as she will later lean (and die) against a tree while hearing the shot that will kill him – Louise closes the door while whispering, “I don’t love you. I don’t love you. I don’t love you.” As Lindsay Anderson wrote upon the film’s UK release in 1954, “the style of the film is its essence”.8

Like many French films of the early 1950s, Madame de… gives us the point of view of the female character.9 For this reason, many of Ophüls’ films have been called “women’s films” and have proven a rich source of scholarly enquiry for feminist film theorists. Hilary Radner, for example, speaks of the “radical feminism” of Ophüls.10 She points out how Ophüls refuses to be complicit in the downfall of female characters due to the unrelenting oppressive violence of the patriarchal social order and notes the particularity of Ophüls’ films as carving out a “precarious alliance between auteurism and feminism.”11

One way in which Ophüls can provide us with Louise’s point of view is through subjective point of view shots, such as when Louise looks through the monocular at Baron Donati falling from his horse. But there are also less obvious stylistic choices that allow us to share Louise’s point of view. Ophüls imposes on the viewer a sense of being trapped through opening scenes with tightly-framed shots instead of allowing the spectator the comfort of clear spatial bearings that an establishing shot would provide. He consistently opens new scenes with close-ups of disembodied hands performing particular actions: Louise picking out jewelry in the opening scene, the jeweler’s son cutting out the newspaper article about the supposed theft the following day, a hand placing a label on a suitcase at the Basel customs checkpoint, a hand holding a magnifying glass over the earrings, and the nanny’s hand hovering over the playing cards.

Not only does this make us feel as though we are continuously spinning in a breathtaking waltz with Louise and the Baron, but the technique also serves to comment upon the relationship between different characters by pairing similar shots together. Indeed, the first time we are introduced to the Baron, we see only a gloved hand pointing at the earrings, duplicating Louise’s gloved hand as she points to the earrings in her boudoir at the film’s opening.

Ophüls thus hints at the future bond between the Baron and Louise before they have even met. In the same scene in Basel, Ophüls frames Baron Donati within a small window pane in a glazed door after trying to catch Louise. The shot refers back to the shot of Louise in her bed the day after “losing” the earrings in which she is rendered portrait-like, framed as she is within one of the window panes in the glazed door. The framing of both characters in this way is a romantically fatalistic use of mise-en-scène: Louise has committed the fatal error of selling the earrings and the Baron has fallen in love with the Countess; from this point both are trapped into their destiny.

Rosalind Galt’s description of Lola Montès as “trapped in the mise-en-scène”12 is equally true of Louise in Madame de…. Indeed, decor is consistently used as a framing device in the film. When Louise sees the Baron falling off his horse through the hunting monocular, her sudden anguish causes her to faint. Humiliated that she has “made a spectacle” of herself, she tells her husband that she must take her leave from their society for a while. After all, in this society of empty ceremony and vacuous niceties, true emotion is a humiliating “spectacle.”

When Louise breaks the news to her husband, Ophüls chooses to leave Louise off-screen. Instead he frames the General in a mobile pan as he moves in the direction of her voice. Ophüls’ rhythm is perfect, as with each pause of the camera we expect a cut to Louise, but instead he layers together following shots of the General moving toward his wife, indicating just how much she has become withdrawn. When we do finally see her, she is lying in bed, and her immobility is a sharp contrast to the General’s ease of movement through the bedroom. As Christian Viviani noted in a 1980 special issue of Positif devoted to the director, “with Ophüls, immobility means death.”13 Suddenly this figure who flittered like a bird down staircases, through hallways and in and out of carriages is now fixed in time – a premonition of her death in the final scene.

Her husband tells her, albeit in his non-threatening conciliatory tone, that she cannot leave Paris. The violent jealously hidden by his controlled militaristic pace and ceremonial solemnity suddenly erupts when he throws down his cloak and cane, symbols of the cold restraint of his social class, and begins to walk through the house, closing each window and thus locking Louise inside her gilded cage. The camera follows him as he closes one window, saying “You can do it.” The camera then cuts to outside the window, a sudden destabilization which increases the violence of the scene. The camera then pans across the outside of the house as he closes another window with the false words, “You can do anything that you wish.” The General assures her of her freedom just as he turns the key in the lock. And we understand his reasons for doing so as the camera pans again across the exterior of the house and he quickly closes the curtain saying, “I respect you, I admire you” and adds under his breath “And I love you” as the window snaps shut.

The violent potential of his character is revealed from the first moment we see the General’s life-size portrait hanging over Louise in the drawing room. In contrast to the lavish decoration of Louise’s dressing room, here, the wall on which the portrait hangs is bare apart from a collection of pistols and swords, hanging on the wall like so many threats to Louise as she stands below. Later the same collection of arms will hang between Louise and Baron Donati, demonstrating that their tragic fate is in the hands of the General. Ophüls communicates the militaristic violence of Lisa’s husband Johan in Letter from an Unknown Woman with a similar mise-en-scène, having Johan tell his wife, “I warn you, I will do everything in my power to prevent it” while a display case of swords stands behind him to reinforce his words.

Brilliant surfaces and dark depths

Another way in which Ophüls indicates a sense of foreboding in his use of slow dissolves to transition from one scene to the next. After Louise casts the empty earrings box into the fire before she leaves for her trip to the Italian lakes, the image of the fire bleeds into the following tracking shot of the General accompanying his wife to her train. For a moment the flames seem to consume him and we remember his earlier words to Louise, “We’ve been playing with fire.” Earlier another slow dissolve showed the departing train of his mistress crashing into tables of fine white porcelain in the couple’s home, a sure sign of the destructive chaos to come.

Although the fin-de-siècle cosmopolitanism and lighthearted sociability of the film gives the impression of permeable borders and fluid movement, Ophüls shows that Louise is trapped within her life, and particularly within her marriage to the General. Louise first meets the Baron on a border, the two declare their love in a doorway and have an illicit meeting in a carriage on the roadside. The couple continually occupy go-between, transitional spaces, only heightening our sense that their love cannot last. Ophüls knows from experience that moving across borders can also mean being trapped in eternal transition. Just as the musician in Letter from an Unknown Woman complains that Stefan and Lisa are forcing her to work late and remarks that she prefers to play for married couples because “they’ve got homes,” here, too, Ophüls presents us with a couple with no home.

When the admiral’s wife gossips about seeing the Baron and Louise at all the balls together, her husband replies, “it’s the only place they can see each other” indicating that the two have nowhere else to go. When the two dance in their fur and overcoats at the end of a long montage of waltzes, we see them caught between a splendid illusion of everlasting love and a dark reckoning with the truth. Just as in Letter from an Unknown Woman, the spell is broken by the musician who gets up and leaves with the words, “Baron or not, I’ve had enough. I’m leaving.” Ophüls nimbly moves from the dancing couple, lost in love and momentarily blind to societal constraints, to the reality of the servants, musicians and foot soldiers who keep their privileged world afloat.

As Truffaut wrote in 1957, quoting Victor Hugo, Ophüls is the director of “the sad tomorrow that follows the sprightly ball”.14


Annie Fee (b. 1984) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department for Media and Communication, University of Oslo. She is working on a book about 1920s Paris film culture and the emergence of cinephilia.




1. Truffaut, François. The Films in My Life. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994. 231.

2. Truffaut, François. The Films in My Life. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994. 233.

3. Koval, Francis. “Interview with Ophüls.” Sight and Sound: London, July 1, 1950. 192-221: 192.

4. Ophüls, Marcel. “Confessions d’un fils à papa.” Positif: Paris, August 1980. 4-7: 6.

5. “Les projets d’Erich Pommer”, L’Intransigeant, 2. September, 1933: 8.

6. Truffaut, François. Letters. London: Faber & Faber, 1989. 82.

7. Mulvey, Laura. “The Earrings of Madame de . . .” Film Quarterly 62, no. 4, 2009: 16–19. 16.

8. Anderson, Lindsay. “Madame De…” Sight and Sound: London, April 1, 1954: 196.

9. Sellier, Geneviève. “Images de femmes dans le cinéma de la Nouvelle Vague.” Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire, no. 10 (1999): 2.

10. Radner, Hilary A. “Lectures du mélodrame: Max Ophüls et le film de femme.” 1895. Mille huit cent quatre-vingt-quinze. Revue de l’association française de recherche sur l’histoire du cinéma, no. 34–35 (October 1, 2001): 121–36.

11. Radner, Hilary A. “Lectures du mélodrame: Max Ophüls et le film de femme.” 1895. Mille huit cent quatre-vingt-quinze. Revue de l’association française de recherche sur l’histoire du cinéma, no. 34–35 (October 1, 2001): 121–36.

12. Galt, Rosalind. Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011: 175.

13. Viviani, Christian. “L’heure exquise…” Positif; Paris, August 1980. 30-33: 32.

14. Truffaut, François. The Films in My Life. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994. 233.

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