What? Is this thing called ‘love’?

With Valentine’s Day upon us and thoughts turning to affairs of the heart, Geoff Andrew ponders matters romantic and the exquisite elegance of Madame de…

Geoff Andrew
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Madame de... (1953)

Madame de... (1953)

What is it about this time of year that gets people going on about romance? Can it really just be St Valentine’s Day? Indeed, do you even know why 14 February was designated St Valentine’s Day? I myself had no idea. Nor, I have to confess, had I a clue as to who this Valentine chap was and what romantic deed he performed to attain sainthood.

Having now checked on Wikipedia, I am little wiser. There seem to have been a few Valentines, none especially romantic, and the saint’s day itself appears to be a ritual originally invented either by Chaucer or by an 18th-century antiquary interested in bogus folklore and the like. Ophelia, it’s true, also mentions the day in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but like Chaucer allocates it no date.

Anyway, romance isn’t just about St Valentine’s Day, is it? I was recently asked by Time Out magazine to send a list of my 10 favourite romantic films for a poll they’ll publish in the middle of March (and no, in case you’re wondering, I am not going to reveal the titles I sent them). So perhaps we’re just thought to be preoccupied by matters of the heart in the winter months? Is romance just something to keep us warm?

Whatever, our Valentine’s Day screenings at BFI Southbank are always extremely popular, and it so happens – I promise it’s accidental – that both of our extended runs in February are widely regarded as romantic classics (though I suspect my friend Mark Cousins, director of the forthcoming film What Is This Film Called Love?, might deem such a description oxymoronic).

I’ve already offered some thoughts on A Place in the Sun (1951), one of the finest love stories to come out of Hollywood in the postwar years. And now – opening the very day after St Valentine’s Day – it’s the turn of Max OphulsMadame de… (1953), made just two years later.

It’s fascinating, in fact, to compare the two films. The great thing about George Stevens’ film is that, by Tinseltown standards, it’s unusually adult and serious. (How could it not be, based as it is on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy?) And at first sight, Ophuls’ film might seem comparatively frivolous and overly decorative.

It’s not just the lavish costumes, ornate sets, fluid camera movements and the faintly novelettish story focused on a pair of earrings being passed from aristocrat to philandering aristocrat in fin-de-siècle Paris. It’s also, at least initially, the tone of the film: devil-may-care, delicately ironic, with no one really saying what they feel, so caught up do they seem to be with keeping up appearances.

But in its own exquisitely elegant way, Ophuls’ masterpiece is just as serious, adult and aware of the difficulties and pitfalls of love as Stevens’ more explicitly sombre movie. Like A Place in the Sun, Madame de… demonstrates very clearly how human emotions are inevitably circumscribed, constrained and to some extent shaped not only by sexual impulses but by class, money and social tradition.

The architecture, finery and objects on display in the film offer a measure of how the characters see themselves and how they hope or expect to be seen by the world around them. The tracking shots not only follow the characters but entrap and fix them, like captive creatures under observation, in their not-so-natural environment. The dialogue and performances, highlighting the formal pleasantries designed to conceal less palatable truths, are equally eloquent in revealing feelings forced to remain under wraps.

Where A Place in the Sun tackles its themes pretty much head-on, deploying a directness some might argue is characteristically American, Madame de…, made by a man who ended up Viennese-waltzing his elegant way through Germany, Austria, Italy, Holland and France (as well as Hollywood), feels quintessentially European.

The film approaches its subject stealthily, displaying wit, irony, delicacy and, it must be said, a certain delight in delay and digression, before moving in for the kill. And when it finally does, it does so with deadly precision. For a film about a pair of earrings, it packs one hell of a punch.

Oh, and one more thing. I forgot to mention that Madame de… is played by Danielle Darrieux. What more need be said?

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