Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: Madame de... (1953)

This is a great film. It starts, and you become sucked in by the luxurious settings, and the fluid camera work, and the beautifully filmed objects, and then before you quite realise what has happened, you become overwhelmed by the poignancy of the situation. And by the end you have become so totally emotionally invested in what's going on, that you forget to pay attention to the glorious camerwork, the sumptuous objects, the intricate costume design. Somehow the director, Max Ophuls, has managed to turn the characters into real people, and you feel so damn sorry for every single one of them.

The film starts as a sort of satire on the artificiality of the social arrangements of the upper class. Oh ha ha ha, the audience thinks, these people are so vapid and moronic, their lives are so empty, that they are no longer able to feel anything. And then, slowly but surely, the film changes, and whereas at first we were laughing at their social artifice, by the ending we understand just exactly why it is in place. If you don't love your wife, if you don't care about your husband, if both parties in a marriage accept the other's various infidelities, then it is impossible to be hurt by life. It is only when you discover that you actually do have feelings that everything comes crashing down around you.

We can see this change superbly if we compare the first and last sequences of the film. In the first sequence, we get one long tracking shot of a faceless woman touching her objects. Her biggest problem in life is that she has come upon some little debt (it is never explained what for, and it is totally irrelevant), and so she needs to sell one of her expensive little trinkets - the film here is obsessed with objects, not people, because the characters in the film are more concerned with their objects than they are with each other. The final sequence, however, is all about people's faces, and the characters aren't surrounded by objects at all - their emotions have driven them out of their pleasants surroundings and into the wild, where their harsh, brutal, emotional natures will finally be bared for the world to see. True, there are still objects that the camera focuses on, but whereas in the first scene these were objects of leisure and beauty, in the final scene they are guns - objects of death. And the camera has stopped its endless tracking and swooping as well - it does still move, it is still fluid, but there are lots of actual cuts as well - in a regular film, these cuts would be regarded as nothing special, but because Ophuls has set up such a leisurely camera, the 'quick' cutting appears positively frantic.

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