Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Earrings of Madame de… and the greatest film ever made

Film critic Andrew Sarris (a leading proponent of the auteur theory) called Max Ophuls's The Earrings of Madame de… the greatest film of all time, in 2007
Is it? 

The technical grandeur of the film is undeniable—the pans, the tilts, the tracking shots, the sweeping movements of the camera, the deep focus. The film dazzles. Most impressive of all is that the film is packed with mirrors—think of the combination of mirrors in shot, a moving camera, and the long take. The Earrings of Madame de… also has superb performances and lots of subtleties in its depiction of the aristocrats with their codes of behaviour, and adultery, with a scene that seems like a clear reference to Anna Karenina. The earrings are interesting—they are an action prop, a device, a symbol; they change in meaning according to the change in relationship and association. 
Despite all that, I find it hard to take the film really seriously, because in many ways it seems like a farce, a contrived story full of implausible coincidences. Either you believe in chance/fate, or you accept it as a kind of farce. I like that the earrings go back to the owner, and the film makes great use of the detail of 2 men giving the very same pair of earrings to the same woman, but it’s ridiculous that a foreign man becomes infatuated with a woman who happens to be the previous owner of the earrings he just bought in another country, and he also happens to know her husband. Perhaps I miss the point, perhaps the point is that it’s a comedy about a man who buys a pair of earrings 3 times (and gets asked to buy the 4th time). I just can’t reconcile the comedy and the melodrama about a doomed love affair alongside each other. 
It’s interesting to hear Andrew Sarris talk more about his list of the greatest films of all time. 
“When people have asked me to name the greatest film of all time—in my humble opinion, of course—my instant answer has been unvarying for the past 30 years or so: Max Ophüls’ Madame de … (1953).
Still, I usually answer questions about the greatest film of all time by immediately throwing in my two runners-up: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (1939). Then, if I can grasp the questioner’s lapels long enough (much like Coleridge’s crazed Ancient Mariner), I rattle off the rest of my all-time ten-greatest list: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Buster Keaton’s The General (1927).
It must be recorded—as it probably already has—that back in 1963, I created a stir at the first New York Film Festival when I asserted in The Village Voice that Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès (1955) was the greatest film of all time […] 
And before Lola, in my pre-Bazin, pre-auterist period, my three favorite films of all time were Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941).” 
It’s a curious list. The man is very different from me. 
There are a few films I haven’t seen, such as La Règle du Jeu. Ugetsu Monogatari can take that place even if it’s not on my own list—it’s a masterpiece. Same for Modern Times. It’s similar to the way I’m OK with Citizen Kane being called for years the greatest film ever made, even though my personal favourite is Persona
But Belle de Jour, instead of The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or The Phantom of Liberty
And Vertigo? Just the other day I had a discussion on fb with my friends Himadri and Dai about the subject, saying I don’t understand how Vertigo could replace Citizen Kane. I liked it, but I remember thinking that it’s a film of its time, with the technical stuff about vertigo and all that, while something like Citizen Kane or Persona doesn’t feel old and outdated. I also remember thinking the film has a mess of a structure, with many twists and turns, each time turning it into a different kind of film—interesting, but a mess nevertheless. 
Of course you can say such rankings are pointless. What after all determines the greatest film ever made? How do you compare very different films that have nothing in common and no basis for comparison? Do you prioritise techniques, style, narrative, structure, themes, scope, innovation, influence, or emotional impact on you personally? Would you choose as the greatest film ever made, a film that is not your no.1 favourite?   
It’s just that everyone loves lists. Your list says more about you than about the films themselves. It’s just fun in starting a debate on why one film is ranked higher than another.


  1. Sarris's list reminds me that I am not an auteurist. I still like acting and writing, the stuff auteurists don't care about. I wish "The Earrings of Madame de.." were less, you know, silly. Same problem with a lot of Hitchcock.

    But yes, what it is, is wonderful.

    1. Auteur theory is not only about style, though, but also about vision and recurrent themes, which can include writing (when the director also wrote or worked on the script and made a very personal film).
      But I see what you mean. I care about writing and acting too, which is why I love Bergman so much- his films has all of that.