The Earrings of Madame de . . .
The most cherished work from French master Max Ophuls, The Earrings of Madame de . . . is a profoundly emotional, cinematographically adventurous tale of deceptive opulence and tragic romance. When an aristocratic woman known only as Madame de . . . (Danielle Darrieux) sells a pair of earrings given to her by her husband (Charles Boyer) in order to pay some debts, she sets off a chain reaction of financial and carnal consequences that can end only in despair. Ophuls’s adaptation of Louise de Vilmorin’s incisive fin de siècle novel employs to ravishing effect the elegant and precise camera work for which the director is so justly renowned.
Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de… receives a Blu-ray upgrade and is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual layer disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
After Criterion gave the film a very strong DVD release I was excited to see what this Blu-ray edition would offer only to find myself largely dissatisfied. It unfortunately looks like the transfer (made from the 2012 Gaumont restoration) has been manipulated and filtered to a fairly staggering degree. The first few minutes give you an unfortunate clue as to what you’re going to be in for and it isn’t exactly pretty. While Louise (Danielle Darrieux) goes through her things during the opening, looking for items to pawn off, she goes through her furs. The actual fur on the clothing looks splotchy and blended, lacking the textures you would expect from a fur. Then, while looking into a mirror, Louise places a veil over her face, a veil which has thin, intricate details and lacing. In the mirror’s reflection these details are faint but as she moves her head around they disappear completely, as if there’s nothing there, while her face is completely smoothed out with some unnatural blending in the shadows of her face. This is all rather disheartening but what makes this high-definition transfer even more distressing is when one compares this opening to the opening on the DVD (which uses a completely different transfer) because on the DVD a.) the fur on the coats actually looks like fur, and b.) the details of the veil are present, if faintly. Somehow this Blu-ray presentation gives off less detail and texture than the DVD, despite the fact it should have 6x the resolution.
The remainder of the film’s presentation is then fairly erratic. Some shots and close-ups appear to have a decent level of detail, but there’s no depth, no textures, with everything coming off fairly waxy to varying degrees. Faces lack distinguishable features, clothing comes off too smooth, and at times, like with the Blu-ray of Children of Paradise, the costumes have a vinyl-like look to them. The hair of the performers also offers another frustration throughout. The problems with the hair are a little hard to explain but I’ll try: There are times you can make out strands, or how Darrieux’s hair has been layered yet there are plenty of moments where it looks like a flat helmet, with no details or intricacies whatsoever. There are even a few shots, particularly long shots, where it almost looks like the Photoshop Mosaic filter has been applied to it, making the hair (on pretty much everyone) look splotchy. And this splotchy “mosaic” like effect occurs a few times throughout on other objects in a scene.
The film also has a silvery look to it, which may be intentional, but this throws off contrast a bit. At best blacks are a very dark gray and crush out all of the details. You can’t make out creases or folds in any way. The DVD’s contrast differs a bit and in comparison I found the details on the DVD show through a little better in the darker sections of the screen. The DVD also doesn’t have as “silvery” a look.
The transfer so far is a disappointment but it does have a few advantages over the DVD. In motion movement is cleaner, and it of course lacks the compression (and the annoying window-boxing) that the DVD version has. The DVD also still had a decent amount of damage present, with the Blu-ray’s presentation coming off much, much cleaner, with only a few minor blemishes remaining. The tram lines, splotches, and scratches that were present on the DVD version are now all gone, but of course this is probably because the image was scrubbed pretty vigorously.
The only other positive thing I can say about the transfer is that it’s not as bad as Criterion’s Children of Paradise Blu-ray, but that’s of course faint praise, and it’s also not much better. There are still somewhat decent moments and the filtering isn’t as extreme but when it causes issues it’s obvious. The most bewildering thing about the transfer is its severe lack of texture and detail, even during its best moments. In many instances the DVD does a better job in delivering these aspects which should not be the case at all. Everything, from faces to the carpets to that cursed veil, everything just has a smoothed out look to it or has had their details diminished. Criterion of course can only work with what they’re given, and like Children of Paradise I believe the issues present here have more to do with the master they were supplied with than anything they may have done to it during their own processing, but it’s disappointing they couldn’t look elsewhere or even make their own.
Surprisingly audio is much better as a whole in comparison to the DVD. The PCM 1.0 mono track sounds much sharper and clearer in comparison to the DVD’s Dolby Digital track. There’s no background noise for the most part, and both dialogue and music come through naturally and effectively. The only real flaw is one that was also on the DVD: some of the ball sequences come off tinny and distorted. But even then it’s not as bad as the DVD’s, sounding to have been cleaned up as much as possible. Overall it’s a pleasant sounding mono track.
Criterion does carry over all supplements from their previous DVD edition, including the thick booklet.
Up first is an audio commentary featuring Susan White (who provided the commentary on the Criterion and Second Sight editions of La ronde) and Gaylyn Studlar. I’m unsure if this was recorded for Criterion specifically, but it doesn’t look to appear on the Second Sight DVD. It is a nice little commentary with the two getting lost in their conversation about Ophuls and the film. I felt one drawback to White’s La ronde commentary was the fact she was obviously reading from prepared notes. This track feels more spontaneous making it much more energetic. It’s a scholarly track with the two offering an in-depth analysis of the film and a history of Ophuls and his career. Similar to most of the features found on Criterion’s other release of Ophuls’ films (the DVD only releases of La ronde and Le plaisir, and the Blu-ray/DVD of Lola Montes) there is a lot of discussion about his use of the camera (dolly, tracking, etc.) and cutting, but it’s still all quite interesting. It’s an excellent track that goes by fast, well worth the listen.
Under “Supplements” Criterion presents a few features.
Up first is an introduction by Paul Thomas Anderson that looks to have been made exclusively for this release. It’s actually presented more as a fragmented commentary and I actually wonder if maybe that was the original intent of it. Running 14-minutes Anderson talks over clips from the film and mentions how he first came across Ophuls (a somewhat confusing story that comes off as a half completed thought) and then comments on the scenes that are being shown getting into Ophuls’ camera techniques, editing/cutting, and how he tells stories.
Some people strongly disliked this feature on the DVD, though I didn’t have the same reaction to it. He sounds a bit off and does ramble, but Anderson seems thrilled to be talking about the film, which for me made it a little infectious. If it was to be a full commentary I can see why it would have been edited down since 100-minutes of this would have been painful, but at 14-minutes I think it’s fine.
Grouped under “Collaborators” there are three interviews. The first is with assistant director Alain Jessua, made in 2005. This is the longest of the three, running about 25-minutes, with Jessua focusing on his work for Madame de… He talks about Ophuls’ personality, which was very charming and kind, though he apparently did get a little high strung during the actual filming (Jessua makes a Jekyll/Hyde reference.) He also touches on Ophuls' shooting style, the design of the film, the music, and even talks a little bit about the film’s producer. The most interesting aspects of the interview involves a failed project that followed Madame de… and the plaque shown at the end of the film, which Jessua, who actually had the plaque engraved, still has and shows to us (and of course the plaque isn’t finished, missing the name of Madame de…) Great interview that adds on a lot to everything else presented through all of the Ophuls releases.
The second interview is from 1989 and features co-writer Annette Wademant. It is the shortest, running a little over 7-minutes. She makes some comparisons to the book and talks a bit about working with Ophuls, who, she feels, did everything his own way and wasn’t one that easily welcomed outside suggestions (she explains how she was almost sent back to Paris because she wouldn’t stop pushing an idea on him.) She felt she couldn’t express herself but seems to have enjoyed working with Ophuls and co-writer Marcel Achard, who she obviously has a great amount of respect for.
The third interview is also from 1989. This interview, running over 8-minutes, presents assistant decorator Marc Frédérix. He talks about both Max Ophuls and designer Jean d’Eaubonne and their working relationship. He states that d’Eaubonne unfortunately threw away most of his work after the completion of a film but then shows that some materials had been saved. He shows some drawings for this film and other Ophuls films, including Le plaisir and The Marriage of Figaro. He talks a bit about how the sets would have to be changed to accommodate Ophuls camera methods and, by the sounds of it, they had to be somewhat dynamic, easy to change. It’s an interesting bit that gets deep into some of the more technical aspects of Ophuls method of filmmaking.
The Visual Essay by Tag Gallagher is an interesting supplement. Running 17-minutes it’s an analysis of Ophuls’ techniques to “create moments of passion”. In it, Gallagher presents shots/frames from Madame de... (and some other films by Max Ophuls) and gives an in-depth analysis on how he worked to convey feeling from the shots. He also breaks down one sequence, the sequence where the Baron and Madame de… first meet. During this bit he shows the sequence as a whole (made up of four shots) and then breaks them down and offers an incredibly in-depth interpretation of each shot, basically going through them frame by frame. At times it’s a little heavy-handed but it really captures that film school feel that Criterion really tries to go for. It makes for a fascinating, educational piece.
And probably the most interesting supplement on here is an excerpt from a 1965 episode of the French television program Démons et merveilles de cinema presenting an interview with novelist Louise de Vilmorin, the author of the novel on which the film is based. It begins with her talking a bit about her work, but then she gets into the film adaptation of Madame de… and pretty much goes on a tangent stating it’s “all wrong!” It’s actually somewhat amusing as everything about the movie, even the subtle differences, really get on her nerves. She even goes as far to call the film “boring.” She states that Ophuls originally showed her an idea for an adaptation that she liked, but obviously something changed. It’s an incredibly fascinating inclusion.
And finally, closing the set is a 76-page booklet. Inside is an essay by Molly Haskell that offers an analysis of the film and looks at Ophuls’ presentation of women in his films. You’ll also find “Dressing Madame de…” which is an excerpt from the book Max Ophuls by costume designer Georges Annenkov, who reminisces on the film and the costumes. And finally we get the source story, a 1998 translation of Madame de… by Louise de Vilmorin, nicely completing the set.
In comparison to the other Ophuls releases from Criterion this one is still the strongest in terms of supplements. They offer fascinating insight into Ophul’s techniques, the source story, and its author. Everything is worth going through.
The supplements still hold up very well and in that regard this release is still a first class edition. But the new video transfer is incredibly problematic. It comes off looking too artificial and digital, and in some ways the DVD looks more natural. Though I don’t completely blame Criterion, I do wish they would have held off until a better master came along.