By Chase Sui Wonders
The scene from Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) begins with the General (Charles Boyer): “But I’m warning you: she’s an incorrigible flirt. She’s an expert at asking men’s hopes. You know, torture through hope.” Through cheeky glances, the General warns Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica) of his wife, Louisa’s (Danielle Darrieux) serial flirtations. Interestingly, this is one of the only direct characterizations we get of our protagonist. We do not know much about her—where she comes from or how she ended up in her deadlocked marriage to a man she seems to have never loved. The film itself plays on the anonymity and opacity of its protagonist by using an anticipatory framing device every time her name is shown. The viewer always just sees ‘Madame de…’ and never the full picture.
And yet, in this scene, an earnestness emerges from Louisa as she dances the night away with Baron Donati. Ophul’s masterful editing and meticulous construction weaves a sequence of image into one continuous moment. They twirl through the frame and their clandestine romance ensues, obscured from the viewer by a busy foreground and background. Indeed, we are barely able to see both of their faces in frame at the same time. One moment we see Louisa’s serene expression and before we know it she has flipped away, substituted with the Baron’s visage, gazing at her with unadulterated affection. They twirl too fast for the audience to indulge in their emotions, for they are too enraptured in their love affair to pause for the camera.
Ophuls uses extravagant wardrobe changes and dissolves cued on downbeats of diegetic music to effortlessly mark the passage of time. And as the two spin around frame, moments spent dancing turn into days, then weeks. The two characters fall in love gradually and all at once. Their extended frolic is forced to an end as servants extinguish candles and orchestra members pack up their instruments. And finally the camera zooms in on a black drape placed over the harpsichord, and with that, the scene dissolves to black, marking the end of the height of their romance. Indeed, in this scene Ophuls masterfully builds their romance while simultaneously suggesting its steady unraveling. The ballroom scene marks turning point in Louisa’s character that she does not recover from. Her dance with the Baron is a moment of absolute bliss that she is never able to inhabit again. Immediately following their prolonged waltz, Louisa begins her retreat from society and spirals out of control, entangled in a web of her own lies.