The Gaps and Detours in Madame de… Part 2: Three Scenes
Cinema as a revealing and dangerous disease: that something else
This second part of this essay will analyse the mise-en-scène of three scenes from Madame de…. , as a demonstration of how Ophüls’ grand film challenges me to engage with my own “enigmatic body.” Throughout this analysis, the focus will remain on one main idea, the symptom and the particular way it manifests itself in this film, the look. The way the characters look at each other is absolutely remarkable and very revealing. It seems almost impossible for two gazes to cross and it is immensely powerful how one person, Louise, can completely lose the ability to look objectively because of her intense sensibility and inner life.
The look, which is created using all of cinema’s tools, is the most revealing symptom of Louise’s progressive downfall. Even more than that, it is the look that reflects how this disease, that had always been within her, takes over her, blinding her to everything that isn’t her passion, her enigma and her utopian world – it is this look that gives a body to Louise’s parting of this world.
Moreover, the look is not only Louise’s but also the General’s – a look, unlike hers, which is too conscious and transparent. Even though he can’t understand everything, he sees his wife and her progressive fading clearly. It is a look that is sometimes caring, and knows Louise better than we would expect, and so it tries, in vain, to pull her back to reality. And it is a look, at the same time, which is harsh enough that, after several blows, makes him feel hurt, disrespected and left out.
But the look in Madame de… is in the end not double, but triple. It assumes a triangular shape, but never a coincidental one, at least for a long time. The characters never look at each other simultaneously with the same insistence and duration; it is out of this realization that the overwhelming spectatorial experience is born. These three characters, like the spectators facing the film, seem to be forbidden to look at each other in the eyes, at the risk of stepping over the line of madness in a world where the exacerbation of feelings is frowned upon. This seems to be a world where there is no such thing as a private place to express love and passion explosively and foolishly. The private must always be restrained by the social throughout the film. Even so, the few scenes in a private room (the married couple’s room) are scenes where there is only time for arguments and distress. Ophüls seems to be telling us that the idea of “home” is incompatible with that of passion, if it’s even possible for a home to exist at all.
It is in this scrutiny of a sickened surface, where the film is infected by the disease of passion, where, in an intricate process, the osmosis becomes double, triple, infinite; where the look has such a painful aim that everything becomes complicated beyond its superficial appearance, in an overwhelming experience of destruction by emotion.
Such violence in such a delicate cinema, such gravity in the floating of the camera, such impiety in the cuts and how difficult it is to face those faces, faces which seem to mirror our uncertainties, mirrors which we don’t want to look at but inadvertently do.
“What I feel for you can’t be conveyed in phrasal combinations; it either screams out loud or stays painfully silent but I promise — it beats words. It beats worlds. I promise“
(Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Letters, Clarendon Press)
Scene 1: The “Serious Conversation” betwen Louise and the General (00:44:50) [Time cues from The Criterion Collection’s DVD Edition]
The context is the conversation between Louise and the General: “je vais partir,” “voulez vous que nous ayons une conversation sérieuse?” and finishing with the General closing all the windows of the room.
The scene starts with the General looking at himself in the mirror, assertive and confident. In the hall, outside the bedroom, he is ready to leave the house and he tells Louise, without even looking at her, that he understands that she can’t go out with him. The camera follows him in these mechanical movements, but something stops him on his way out of the door. The camera stops its movement along with the General and hears an almost silent whisper of a fragile voice that seems to come from the bottom of a well. It says “André…”. “Je vais partir . . .” says that little voice. Languidly, this voice drags on, so slowly, in a low tone. Despite its discreet presence, these few words introduce a very striking gravity that cuts and interrupts the levity of the General’s exit. Stunned, he closes the door, takes three steps and reaches the vestibule’s door, still dressed to leave. A cut to a medium shot of him follows. Louise remains off screen, as a mysterious presence whose intensity lies in the weakness of her voice and on the rare and precise words it utters. We feel it in the way her words, punctuated and faded, resonate in the General’s face and conducts his movements, as well as those of the camera.
Again, the camera tracks with him as he takes a few more steps into the vestibule and abruptly stops once more when one of the General’s steps is interrupted, as he hears again “je veux partir.” The camera’s and the General’s fluidity of movements (the same movement, camera/General are in here only one) are constantly being stopped by the gravity of Louise’s words. These words have such a powerful effect that we can clearly read on the General’s face the confusion they are causing within him and how his usually confident speech is unexpectedly disarmed by these feeble words. He now searches for a way to regain his composure, and we can almost see in his expression the process of his thoughts being formed. He stands, listening to her, to that little voice that acts as a loud speaker of a fading spirit, of a body whose soul is levitating to some other place. He listens with a pensive face, his eyes focused and still. He fidgets with his fingers. He acts like a focused listener that works hard and struggles to understand what the other person is telling him in a foreign language and, as he goes along, tries to decode what he can follow.
From the beginning, the camera is involved in the general’s confusion and in his attempt to understand this mystery. Like him, this mechanical entity turned human is receiving what is being said and doesn’t know immediately how to react, it is figuring it out as it moves along. This camera that follows his starts and breaks is him, it is his uncertainty, his confusion, his search – it is him under the influence of that voice. The general is entirely strained and driven by this disembodied voice, the conductor of his movements that leads him progressively through the several rooms of the house.
He finally arrives at the door of the room where Louise rests and when he truly understands what those words and that weak tone mean, what that longing to run away symbolizes – to what he calls “faiblesse de coeur” – he puts his hat down and mournfully states that they may need to have a serious conversation after all.
He is about to put his cane down but, for a moment, he seems to glimpse exactly what he needs to say. He begins to walk around the room, confidently, cane in hand, gesturing like an officer, rallying his troops and ready for battle. The camera follows him in this boost of energy. He then begins talking about Louise, “une femme de votre qualité,” sure that his words will be enough to solve the problem. Following his movements, the camera walks strongly forward and allows us to see Louise at last. Now that he can face her, so can we. We gaze briefly at a “woman of that quality” lying in a big white bed. Motionless.
Rapidly and briefly we see her, silent, taken ill with that overwhelming “faiblesse de coeur.” But now we only have body, not voice. It is as if it was impossible to have, in this moment, both together, body and voice, because there is always an absence of something. It is an impossible meeting because her thoughts are not in this world. Like blind eyes or a mute mouth, we are looking at a numb body that only speaks internally. And in this moment the tenacity and the precision of the editing, present from the start, jumps into clear sight. Until this point we had not been given a body to associate that strangely absent and powerful voice to, and now we receive this lethal gift that is taken away from us after only a few seconds. And these few seconds, as fast as a paper cut, will from then on stain and infect all of the General’s falsely confident words. He loses the ability to maintain the facade before our eyes.
So far, we had to be just with him. We were forced to watch as that faint, distant presence was reflected in his certainties and how he received those revelations with increasing confusion; we had nothing material to associate with the elusive voice to confirm the presence of a distressed body.
Then, all of a sudden, without warning, a very short shot of Louise’s absent body confirms a gravity we already sensed in her voice, making it now even more frontal and burning, intensifying it in such a way that it will not let go of the rest of the scene. That voice is not an apparition or a phantom, and this is not a mere “faiblesse de coeur.” This shot makes her presence real and material and shows us that this mysterious thread that had been conducting the General’s movements really exists and has a body in this world, making it much more dangerous, fatal and painful. These are the kind of editing choices that make Madame de . . . such a piercing film, remarkable for the clear and precise way they reveal the mysterious unspoken liaisons between people and, in particular, the invisible and intense forces of the loved one upon the lover. The editing has a clear conscience and marksmanship of what to show, what to hide and for how long – and that perfected aim, that precision, can be one the most powerful tools causing the most enduring damage.
We return to him as he continues talking, still wearing his coat, gloves and cane. Sure of himself, he walks to a chair, takes a breath, thinks for a moment, sits down and tells her: “Notre bonheur conjugal est à notre image. Ce n’est que superficiallement qu’elle est superficial.” His speech is structured and embellished with aphorisms that seem unquestionable. He speaks of the confidence he has in her and tells her she will stay in Paris.
Cut back to her. She is framed the same way as in the previous shot, in between transparent fabrics hanging from her luxurious bed, as if she was already a prisoner of her own mysterious thoughts that will not allow her to clearly see the material world outside. We look once more at her face, her lost gaze, her weak words, her stillness. Hers is a body numbed by what has passed, so deeply intense not because of what happened, but precisely because of what has not come yet. 1 This is an affliction born out of the brief glimpses Louise had of the possibility of something else, of the possibility of happiness, perhaps; an angst that feeds on the impossibilities of the present that, in the end, were built by herself, by the decisions she made and its collateral damages, which are already outside of her control. 2
I feel this body’s absence in this world and, at the same time, the influence of its elusive materiality – the way its presence crashes with the real world and with the General’s certainties tells us a great deal about what is truly going on. It is as if Louise’s enigmatic body, that entity that is neither body nor mind, was floating all over that room, still unexpressed and muffled, but shaking everything to its core all the same. It unsettles everything surrounding it because what it hides appears to be terribly dangerous and serious. This shock is even greater to our eyes as we witness the General receiving these piercing and silent words coming from Louise. He sees everything from the outside, recognizing that shadow as the remains of what used to be his wife. This body still trapped physically to this world, but in some other place psychologically, leaves traces, stains everything and meets with the montage’s body and the floating camera. 3
Cut from this shot of Louise’s frozen distant look back to the General. Silence reigns for a few seconds that seem endless. He is looking at Louise, standing still, incredulous and stunned. His look, unlike hers, seems to see everything that is happening very clearly. He feels the pain of being too conscious without being able to do anything about it. He sees her for what she truly is, even if he does not understand it entirely. That is a feat no one else can achieve. This might be, in a very unlikely way, the beauty of a love relationship, which still doesn’t make it fool proof and protected. Ophüls shows us very subtly the deep knowledge that the General, the lover, has of his wife, the loved one, while she floats in her own uncertainty. Unexpectedly, could this more enlightened knowledge of the weaknesses of the other one, clearer than one’s own insight, be what makes a deeply sincere and truthful bond between two people, even if, in this case, it is only one-sided?
We hear a distant and low church bell. We see as the General, still sitting, takes another breath, looking for the strength to continue his speech in an attempt to wake Louise from her somnambulism and to convince her (and himself) that this is no big deal, it is just a “faiblesse de coeur.” He stands up and finds the courage to continue to fight for her, saying: “We’ll get through this difficult moment together.” The camera waddles with him as he walks around the room just like a general who’s planning a battlefield strategy. We sense his dedication and his willpower as much as his wavering uncertainty, characteristic of a person preparing for a battle while knowing very well the hard road he has ahead. He speaks with his eyes facing the ground while the camera follows him back and forth until, at a certain point, it stops. He feels a rush of confidence and speaks of Napoleon and his intention of not giving up. It is an unfortunate accident that appears in his speech like an omen, to speak of Napoleon, that short man, symbol of power and confidence who, even with unlimited determination, had to witness his empire fall. The General’s sudden assertiveness is just a way to cover his fear, to deny the inevitable and, deep down, to express his love – his sheer determination that often takes an authoritarian manner, but is not just an expression of a desire to own, but it is also a way of loving, as he fights for someone who is fading.
He states that “The opponent must be faced.” Cut to him leaving the room in a rampage. The camera follows his fast pace as he puts his coat down and continues to speak through short and incisive words of incentive and, in a flash, another cut. In this instinctive reflex of defence, a fast cut to the exterior of the house. The fluid camera now frames from the exterior to the interior, through the several windows and curtains that the General closes, one by one, and follows his swift race. Just like a cheetah that gallops as it hears a lion’s roar, the camera follows this sudden instinctive gesture of someone who is stunned and scared. This gesture that superficially seems to be a way of imprisoning her by blocking any possible escape is instead a gesture of protection. It is as if the General suddenly realized the violence in all those words. He feels wounded and begins to raise a shield to protect himself and to protect Louise from her own obscurity that is taking over. His surprising fear meets his protective instinct to save what he loves and cherishes – this is the shape love takes for the General, a man we sometimes forget is not only “the General,” but also André. Behind an authoritarian stance we glimpse in his pauses, looks, and words a love that trembles with him and that leads him through strange paths and painful losing battles.
In a kick of energy this instinctive defence reflex sends the viewer immediately to the exterior of the room. We are expelled from the house and we are forced to see the rest of the action from the outside, through the windows which are being shut before our eyes. Our vision is confined to this way of framing from the exterior. Could it be because it is too difficult for us to see the General, this “Napoleon”, nervously and frantically raising his defences and to witness as he leaves behind the authoritarian “General” to become just André? Could it be that it is too painful to face without barriers his determination and chaotic devotion before her absence and apathy? Or could it be that the camera feels by osmosis this act of protection and therefore respects it? This camera too does not want to expose the woman that he respects, admires and loves. Let us now leave them inside all by themselves, at least for a moment, giving the General the chance to create a shelter where they are not exposed to the outside winds and storms and to other people’s stares. He must be thinking: “Let’s stay here and solve this because I don’t want to lose you, but also I don’t want you to suffer.”
However, as I write this, I realize with increasing clarity that the camera’s behaviour has more to do with him than with her. I say this because if we stayed inside, we probably would not see Louise’s body, but only André‘s, walking around in confusion with no response from her. It seems increasingly clear to me that the camera steps back a little bit because it simply cannot continue to show the painful effects of that woman’s absence on that man. The Ophülsian camera films André‘s pointless efforts and Louise’s vanishing from that world as a part of a couple, but it remains outside, this absence of intimacy between a couple and that insistent pull from one end and abandonment from the other is now too violent for us to remain inside.
This cut, a very revealing witness of the editing’s disquieting determination, constitutes a tremendous enigma whose slim answers seem only to be a glimpse of something we cannot explain, something bigger than words. These are enigmatic decisions that make us feel a flux of intense and sometimes conflicting feelings, and it is precisely in this sudden shock that lies the power of montage, to speak of something that resists being expressed in words and that we feel sorely like a rope’s knot pressed against our neck whose impact is so strong and mysterious that we cannot explain or understand it entirely, even after the moment of collision.
Outside, the church bell’s sound does not go unnoticed. If in the beginning this sound was subtle to our ears, now it overlaps unapologetically with the General’s race. This lingering sound (we can almost see in our mind the bell swinging back and forth) that reminds us of a trumpet that marks the beginning of a battle, starts now to acquire a funereal tone and a subterranean fatality begins to settle. In the meantime, André continues to close all the windows while making his speech. He gets to the last window, saying how he respects and admires her: “et je vous aime.” There is a suddenly whispered tone in his speech, a lowered head, a pause as he closes the window. Slip. All this deeply shatters that rhythm of false confidence that André carried from the start. Close to the end of the scene, this shy and scared verbalization smudges everything we watched from the start, and we begin to realize that the uncertainty we sensed all along is real and a symptom of something much deeper. With these three final words we are left on the edge of the same cliff as André. We feel confused, unsure and conflicted. The rhythm’s break introduced by those low words – those love words that seem to have been said for the first time in that marriage where everything is “superficially superficial” – introduces the unspoken that was present from the start and reveals what led André‘s every move, the ones that the camera followed and became. We sense in these three words the General’s difficulty in admitting, amidst all those certainties that are part of his identity, that he loves. Love is a weakness and “je vous aime” is an unstable statement that can be easily knocked down by the other party, for love only exists if there is a lover and a loved one (to say “aime” there must be “je” and “vous”). This restrained “je vous aime” is for him a recognition of a weakness, of a love whose deep devotion and intensity is surprising him increasingly as he senses Louise’s departing to the world of the dead.
“… Et je vous aime”, the curtain closes and we stay in the dark.
Scene 2: Donati Visits Louise at Her House – The Earrings (47:50)
Transition to the scene immediately following: a dissolve from the dark window, from General André‘s gesture, to a high angle shot of the tarot cards. This is a tremendously important ellipse. We do not witness the conversation between Louise and her husband because it is already too much to handle, but we can confirm now that the General’s efforts to “heal” her were in vain. She is leaving. It is becoming painfully clear the inevitability of fate and of that “faiblesse de coeur” that is nothing other than an immense fever, a disease with no cure and no return. Fate continues to pull its merciless invisible thread, dragging with it every gesture of fight and the faint hope of something else. As the cards are being thrown by Nounou, we realize nothing can be the same again.
While Nounou reads Louise her fate, she walks around the room preparing her things to leave. In these short and blind steps she seems unable to see a clear destination and is guided by some force that is slowly taking over her body and leading her through a frantic path of a deep, febrile somnambulism. In these details, such as her walk, the “secret pulse” that Ophüls is able to inscribe upon things is manifesting itself in everything and speaks of those things that Louise does not know to express, things that I am still figuring out as I move along with her. Her walk and her movement’s sinuosity is what I recognize progressively intensified throughout the film. Louise is like a fish in an aquarium that as we try to catch, flees from our hand only to keep swimming frantically with no destination, never stopping but also never finding what she’s looking for . . . her place.
As Nounou’s predictions overlap with Louise’s swift movements, she continues to pack her bag. We notice the mechanical nature of her gestures, empty gestures that we usually do not remember seconds later because our attention was not in the here and now but in some other hidden place. These are gestures we do to maintain the appearance of sanity, to maintain normality when everything we feel doesn’t seem normal, but stained with a bit of insanity that scares us. So Louise continues. She packs her jewellery box, perfume and mirror. Objects that are truly nothing but part of the expected exteriority she created, that of a “coquette,” that she now maintains in a mechanical way. Here in this mechanical exterior, devoid of any real intention, we unveil her profoundly apathetic interior, destroyed by a blind desire that can only see the object of its obsession slip away between its fingers.
After Nounou predicts a “grand amour partagé,” we notice how Louise’s eyes fall even more deeply into the abyss of thought of what is escaping her. We hear bells ringing in her head like a romantic musical theme. Cut to Donati entering the living room.
Donati’s arrival is his entrance into Louise and André‘s space, an intrusion into the microcosms of matrimony. More than that, this is an invasion of André‘s territory. This is his office, the space where he governs and we notice this from the start. Donati is immediately faced with a huge portrait of the General guarding the room. The camera follows him in an exploration of the unknown. As if lost, it circles Donati with no centre but with great sensuality. As the camera frames that charming face in opposition to the severity of the General’s portraits, a sweet tune accompanies its movement, and suddenly I feel intoxicated by some sweet perfume. All of a sudden, I feel a great passion for this Italian man. I feel bloated, unable to breathe or rationalize, simply floating in my chair hypnotized, lulled by this tender affection.
Could this be the way Louise sees Donati? Is it possible that even I stopped seeing clearly and all my admiration for the General’s dedication is about to be knocked down by the glimpse of this possibility to live an enormous and extraordinary romance? Like Louise, I find myself torn between reason and feeling. Louise by the passion she holds for Donati and me by the truth I grasp in these feelings too strong not to be confusing and conflicting. This is what Ophüls makes us realize and feel, that everything is much more complex and deep than what it looks like. With the camera, the actor’s minute expressions and the editing’s rhythm, Max Ophüls writes a beautiful and painful poem that assures us at the beginning, only to call everything into question immediately after, leaving us swinging in our own uncertainties and incoherence.
I’ll now make an effort to be more concrete because when films are as painfully beautiful as this one and shape themselves before our eyes as a deep revelation it’s hard not to lose the north in this confusing and entrancing geography.
We are downstairs in the living room with Donati and there’s a cut for a few seconds to the entry hall as Louise rushes down the stairs. From here on, then, everything follows in a hurry at a huge editing speed, infected by Louise’s enthusiasm. Startled, she arrives at the living room and begins to speak. She starts to say “Comment vous…,” but immediately stops mid-sentence. Louise has to instantly readapt her voice’s instinctive tone – it is too romantic, too intimate. That passion is taking over her in such a way that she now begins to forget all the suffocating social obligations and the appearance of normality she must maintain.
Louise is framed next to her husband’s huge portrait as she speaks to Donati, completely focused on that body and its presence. There is a shot of Donati from Louise’s point of view. He gets closer to her; there is a mutual recognition of each other’s presence. Shot of Louise, of the restrained enthusiasm as she sees Donati approaching, talking and looking at her. Shot of Louise and Donati, a sort of establishing shot where we see and feel the physical distance between the two of them, heightened by the burning desire that fills the frame. Donati is slowly approaching, but still not enough; he remains agonizingly far away at the top of the small flight of stairs. This impatience, this desire to run into Donati’s arms, is clearly patent in Louise’s posture. She is so nervous she cannot look him in the eyes or stop fidgeting as she nervously plays with the handkerchief in her hand (just like the General fidgeted with his fingers while he listened to Louise in the previous scene).
Louise’s restless body contrasts with Donati’s still posture at the top of the stairs. This charming man is too elegant to exceed himself. He loves and desires, but he is too rational and down to earth to explode, unlike Louise. This is a contrast that is slowly built with more precision as the following shots proceed (medium shots of him and her and the establishing shot). And it is here, in the silences that connect Louise’s and Donati’s shots in this big, cold and distant space separating them that we feel a desire for intimacy that has no place in there. The cold luxury makes the room uncomfortable for such a passionate affair and its hugeness (wide space, high ceiling, big paintings) is massively consuming and stifling, just like those giant portraits of the General that remind them constantly of the illegitimacy of their romance. Their interior world and secret passion must coexist with that pre-existing world. The feeling of intimacy they share clashes with the restrictions of the real world they inhabit, and hence the strangeness in this distance between them.
The empty conversation and the silences that punctuate the short sentences are symptomatic of the nature of this relationship. Its intimacy and desires do not have an expression in the exterior, so they are confined to a utopian world. They are doomed to live a desire with no space in some sort of pretend game. Louise and Donati do not have a space of their own, so there is only one possibility: to occupy the other spaces that don’t belong to them and create in them their own illusion, a nest isolated from the rest of the world, of the living room, of the ball, of the carriage, just like a couple of sneaky teenagers with no room of their own. But, in all honesty, this bubble, this private room within the common areas is mostly commanded by Louise’s blindness, by her tunnel vision that does not see anything other than Donati. Not only does it not see the before and after and the consequences of her actions, but it is also blind to the blows she inflicts upon her husband as she follows the delusional dream of an idyllic passion, much more exacerbated (to the point of obsession) from her side than the other’s. Not even reality’s severe blows can wake her, such as the arrival of the General later in this scene and the painful words Donati spits at her much later in the film: “Je ne suis plus avec vous, Louise.” Instead, they only intensify her despair, worsening her illness.
In this scene, Louise can barely speak because the words that want to jump from her mouth are “Je vous aime.” Her body seems to have a will of its own that she is trying to restrain. From the beginning of this futile conversation, every word, every silence, are smudged by the unspoken, by the interior that overflows and interferes in the maintenance of an appearance of normalcy.
What can I speak of so that I do not speak of what I am feeling?
Louise attempts to fill the silence. She speaks through short and spaced sentences that manage to come out only through great effort – the banality of those words is too shocking given the violence of the moment. The intensity is such that she can’t manage to look at him. On the other hand, he seems calm while looking at the woman he desires.
I feel the tension, the unexpressed love, Louise’s jitters and Donati’s composure.
Cut to her, to him, to the space between them. The unspoken fills the distance between these shots and explodes their quality, the value they started with. The emotion yells in clear sight, it is too strong to contain. Those silences take our breath away. We cannot manage to breath properly. We feel uneasy as we are part of this silence, a silence overflowing with the unspoken, a suffocating and constricting silence. The words being said are so empty that we feel even more breathless and anguished by the eagerness of what is yet to come. Silence. Louise fidgets and finally verbalizes the discomfort felt until then: “Il paraît que c’est quand on a trop à dire qu’on se tait.” And with that breath of honesty, that slip, something breaks. What was stopping them from being close to each other, limiting them to their own suffocating territories and separate contrasting shots, has now cracked.
Cut back to the establishing shot but now the camera approaches, moving in union with those two bodies that finally meet. Louise walks to a chair, Donati follows her and the camera slides through space, weightless and charming, but with an unbelievable conviction in its steps and destination 4 . These two, who were being kept separate by the editing, are now united. They encounter each other and everything seems to come out of a wonderfully orchestrated musical piece, the romantic musical theme present from the start reaches its climax as it sinks in Louise’s vertiginous feelings. Louise and Donati start walking at the same time and the camera follows this movement. She sits down and he approaches her. The light around them magically dims as they meet each other. Just like in the beginning of this scene when Donati entered the room, I am completely overwhelmed by Louise’s blind passion – I feel it in me, I confirm it and I am carried away by its excessive and dangerous romanticism.
They don’t look each other in the eyes. Louise’s look is fixed on the infinite, as always, focused on the abyss of her passion, infected by that something that never comes. She directs her look at some other place to avoid looking at him, in the risk of succumbing to her impulsive feelings if she crosses looks with that charming man. Donati looks at her, always with the same control and elegance, sensing the power of the emotion devastating her. Sensing, but not entirely feeling it – sympathy, but not empathy.
Louise finally looks at him. Their looks meet and their bodies fall onto each other like two sagging arcs and they deeply close their eyes, enjoying that long-awaited touch for everything that awakens within them. For a brief second, they think they can escape the world and find their place. Louise feels she can finally close her eyes so as to see something. We are with them. I am there and I share their dreams. I am in Louise’s romantic imagination and I feel that man’s chest as if it was my head leaning on it, finding there the place where it belongs.
But reality is swift and ferocious, just like the editing, and after only a few seconds the light becomes brighter around them and Donati is the first one to open his eyes and raise his head while Louise is still immersed in her dream. Off screen, we hear a door’s very low sound, the romantic tune abruptly stops and the sound of reality comes in. Out of the blue, we begin to hear snippets of conversations, steps on the carpet, doors being opened. It immediately cuts to a single shot of the entry hall from their point of view as they look outside, stunned. Those brief seconds were just glimpses of a dream impossible to grasp. There is an exterior reality they both must handle and it is there they are forced to move and live. And this world is much brighter and banal than Louise’s deep passion and inner world. We can clearly see that in the change of mood: the sound, the lighting, the framing, the way bodies move and the way the rhythm flows.
Reality is a dream’s obstacle and what life’s circumstances give us and then quickly takes away. This abrupt cut seems to be speaking to me and it says: dream is nothing but an illusion in a world where fate closes in.
Donati instantly resumes the conversation and tells Louise of the foolishness he committed when buying her a gift that he left along with the flowers, in order to force her to think of him. When Louise hears this she hastily leaves the room, excited as a young girl. With this exiting movement, there is a new cut to the entry hall, where the camera follows from a distance as Louise climbs the stairs. In this long shot, as Louise goes up the stairs, a servant passes by and the General arrives home. There is a complex orchestration of the characters’ entry and exit movements, and of the camera’s own body. In this moment, we glimpse with great clarity the movements behind the upcoming fate – that of the triangle’s three edges. Louise exits the shot driven by that something, the earrings, that object that overflows with her desire, allowing her to touch her beloved one in the way reality doesn’t; André moves towards Donati to protect his marriage and his wife, in an authoritarian attempt to keep her by his side and maybe save her from what he sees will be her ruin; and Donati, a motionless piece in the middle of this game, a man who triggered all this movement but who simply lets things happen for themselves rather than taking the initiative, even in the final duel. It is important to note that Donati is what accidentally presses the trigger, but he is not at all the one who initiates or commands all these movements.
I would like to say much more about Donati’s “interest” in Louise, but he remains a strange piece in the middle of a complicated chess game. He remains calm and mostly motionless, interested in Louise’s exceptionality but with no signs of a burning love. He does not suffer from the violence of passion like Louise, nor from a rejected and hurt soul like André. For him, nothing appears to be serious. He is a diplomat, ready to return to reality as it is and to face it with charm and resignation. However, I might not know much more about him because after all this is not about him. It is about a woman, living in between the subconscious and the conscious, who slowly begins to leave this world when she realizes her delirium cannot find an answer good enough or a space to exist in the real world. And maybe it is also about what love and care can be. That is what I see in André‘s eyes when he watches Louise as she grabs a pair of gloves. I see it too in his reactions. When he feels her passion for another man and hears her disappearing voice, he reacts immediately, battling.
The General greets Donati
The General enters the living room and, from his point of view, we see him facing Donati and closing the door behind him. Meanwhile, upstairs in Louise’s dressing room, in her fantasy world, everything suddenly emanates a ray of hope, contrary to the seriousness that reigns downstairs. The sweet and romantic tune plays, Louise sees the gift, the earrings, and it is as if she could touch her dream for a few seconds, feeling its pulse right in front of her eyes. The earrings are the ultimate real sign that confirms the reciprocity of her passion and are a possibility to be near Donati, to touch him. These travelled earrings are now transformed by what they embody, by their affection, and they turn into that “something” she was waiting for. They are no longer earrings, they are already something else. They are gleaming signs of love that she transforms and processes within herself.
The camera accompanies Louise on the way to her mirror. Straight as an arrow, she walks with her hands shut as she holds the earrings with a fixed and dreamy stare, and it’s becoming increasingly clearer that all along what guides her isn’t sight but something else, something that resembles the attraction of her own mystery. She stops and we see her in close-up, completely surrounded by the ostentatious frame of the mirror that overwhelms the shot and consumes Louise’s face. This luxurious frame has an effect on this shot similar to Louise’s own vision. Her blind search stops her from seeing what surrounds her. She is now entirely focused on those earrings and everything around them is blurry. It is as if from the beginning Louise saw everything out of focus and hazy and could only distinguish in the middle of that blurry reality an unusual light shining in the distance. And now she finally sees and feels what is that light, those earrings that she is now putting on and, in a beautiful gesture, caresses as she closes her eyes. Those earrings are Donati’s chest where she leaned her head a few moments ago, his face that she could not caress yet. They are everything in him. This is the gesture of holding him tight. It is the end of that distance we saw earlier in the living room.
From the moment she meets Donati, this is the only way Louise can see. In fact, she can no longer see, she only feels. The desire and passion take over her in such a way that she can no longer see anything but her confusing and impetuous feelings. Desire is an extremely powerful force that leads her through those strange paths that she could easily traverse with her eyes closed, as she seems to do so very often. It is like a magnet that draws Louise without her knowing how and, at a certain point, why. I ask myself again, what is this passion? She no longer sees the world but only her world where Donati’s absence makes her existence too painful, too exciting and too delirious.
Louise passes her hands slowly along the earrings and sighs as if she was touching Donati. While she is opening her eyes, Louise realizes her exaggeration. She is not alone and those earrings are not Donati. She tries to regain her composure. Meanwhile, both men talk downstairs and we notice how the two of them are completely conscious of what is happening. It is again what cannot be said for being too violent for social restrictions that is showing signs in both men’s behaviour, calling into question the verity of every word we hear. We notice the General’s confusion and irritation as he walks around the room with his head lowered, searching for something to say that does not show how upset he is but that, on the contrary, demonstrates domination. On the other hand, we notice Donati’s discomfort that standing still and saying only a few cordial words exposes his status as a caught intruder. The falsely cordial conversation takes on another tone because of the General’s restless walk, his long-irritated silence before he begins talking, and Donati’s look that immediately avoids a direct encounter with his adversary.
Cut to Louise descending the stairs, still immersed in her dream. She suddenly stops. She hears her husband’s voice and is perplexed by reality’s abrupt clash. The camera approaches her while she takes the earrings off in a mechanical gesture, always with a fixed stare. Cut back to the living room, to a single shot of the General saying: “Les femmes, mon cher, toutes les mêmes. Elles font des mystères pour les choses les plus simples.” The confidence with which he says this statement is uncanny, as if he had found a formula, an answer. He is trying to show how he easily unveils and understands the female mystery, his wife’s mystery. They have no mystery to him, that is what he is trying to prove. But actually this is only an act engineered to demonstrate his superiority after being so humiliated. We know that because we have witnessed in the previous scene how he is aware that there is nothing simple about this and that the understanding he has of his wife, even though more truthful than the rest of the characters, is just a glimpse of something much deeper. The impossibility to decipher that enigma, both on his part as well as on hers, is what ends up by being the death of it all.
Cut to her, that mystère. The camera follows her entering the room. She barely looks at her husband and simply says “Bonsoir, mon amour.” In this universe, where the interior is constrained by the limits of the exterior, ordinary words, for what they try to hide and for what they’re missing, are love words (as in Donati’s and Louise’s conversation) and love words are ordinary words. This “mon amour” is mechanical and absent because it is directed at the wrong person. The right person is the one Louise is staring directly at, fiercely, while she passes by her husband, who looks at her, terribly conscious of what is going on. How horrible is this sight. Louise passing her husband, looking directly at Donati, the one she wants but cannot reach, the one she wants so badly that she does not even notice the look she’s giving him. She cannot even think of her husband’s role in the middle of this, he who sees her passing by without even looking at him. The camera continues to follow Louise’s movement while André looks at her and says “vous m’amusé.” This short sentence is filled by assumptions we are aware of but are not verbalized. The unspoken, for its intrusion upon the spoken, creates a huge detour that we feel was there all along. Everybody knows what they are really talking about but nobody says it; not even we dare to say it too clearly. Following Louise’s steps, while she continues to look at Donati as her husband speaks, the camera frames this disquieting triangle. All this in one single shot.
But, quickly, a cut from this triangular shot to a medium shot of the General that emerges as the hand of fate, as a judge that makes a final decision from which it is impossible to escape. He “invites” Donati to leave, to say a definite goodbye to Louise who is travelling away. We feel the silence and the shock in the following individual shots of Donati and Louise, shots so brief, like a very quick breath, a breath that is taken away from us, interrupted, cut.
Cut back to the triangular shot of the three characters. The general says goodbye to his “cher ami” followed by a cut to Louise and Donati walking towards the door. The camera accompanies this movement while Donati keeps talking discreetly to Louise in the few seconds they have left. He looks at her and she walks hastily, always ahead, never turning to look at him, forbidding herself from dealing with the force of her emotion. They arrive at the door, the camera comes closer to these two lovers that exchange glances for a second, only to separate again. Donati exits the house and stays on the outside of the door while Louise stays on the other side of the door inside the house. She clings to the door, passes her hands along it, closes her eyes and repeats again and again “Je ne vous aime. Je ne vous aime pas. Je ne vous aime pas.” These words carry a deeply violent contradiction and are thrown at us like minuscule, piercing and repeated arrows. This “je ne vous aime pas” that is repeated with such intensity is simultaneously an explosion of desire and passion and also an attempt to deny it, to silence it. If on one hand this is a useless attempt to silence with rational words feelings which are too complicated to deal with, on the other hand this is an expression of a desire too powerful to be restrained.
While she squirms in torture, Donati remains still on the other side of the door. When Louise silences her prayer-like “Je ne vous aime pas,” Donati whispers “Revenez.” and disappears like an apparition. She shuts the door, his shadow fades and Louise seems lost in her own house. She looks everywhere, searching for coordinates. She just woke up from such a feverish dream that she no longer knows where she is. She feels confused and lost because everything vanished in front of her eyes in such a fast and cruel way. She swallows hard, glances at the staircase and runs to her room. She begins to climb up the stairs, but sees the servants bringing her bags down. Louise wants to run away, to find a refuge and that voyage away from Donati is just another change to some other place that is not her home.
Scene 3: Louise and Donati’s Last Encounter (01:32:57)
Car vous ne m’aimez plus, n’est pas?
On a whim, in this chronology of Louise’s downfall, I wish to give attention to one more scene, a scene that seems to me impossible to forget.
Louise goes to Donati’s house after he was challenged to a duel by the General and it is unbelievable how Louise had faded up until this moment. She is a shadow of what she used to be. Wearing a shawl, with her posture curved and holding her stomach with pain, she leans on a chair trying to stand. In a long shot framing her and Donati’s servant, the indifference she is faced with is glaring. The servant continues his duties lighting a lamp and asks Louise to restrain herself. “We cannot allow a scandal here,” he says. She has completely lost all sense of social restrictions. She can no longer keep up the act. She needs to see Donati and to maintain the facade of normality seems futile to her, impossible and unthinkable. This is the final stretch of the rope, the permanent and irreparable turn. This is the symptom out of control. With no cure, the delirium begins to come out of the body, exploding in every direction.
Donati enters the room and is the complete opposite of Louise. Composed and charming as always, he talks to her cordially. The camera follows him and we finally see them together again, one last time. Louise’s curved body is sitting in a chair and Donati is standing, taking every step with a disquieting ease and confidence.
She asks him how can he fight for her, “pour une folle comme moi,” and we cut to her in all her ecstasy. It is a very brief and painful shot where we feel that at any moment she might fall apart. “Je ne suis même plus jolie” she states, dishevelled, looking down and constantly shaking her head. Cut to him looking at Louise with an affectionate look while she’s blurry at the corner of the frame. “Plus que jamais,” he says. We cut to a kind of over the shoulder shot of Donati. Louise asks “Croyez?” and raises her head suddenly. She looks at Donati and seems to find something, something she remembers feeling. We begin to hear the romantic musical theme. But after a thousandth of a second, it disappears. She seems to have sunk so deep into the abyss and crashed so hard with reality that only now she can see something of what’s surrounding her – it no longer matters how beautiful or not he thinks she is. The truth is that he is going to be in a duel with the General, he is going to die.
Cut back to a medium shot of Louise as she recognizes her blindness and the path through which it led her. A frivolous liar, she calls herself cruelly. Cut to a brief medium shot of Donati where he says a few irrelevant words. The easiness and sanity of his words are in stark contrast with Louise’s frantic delirium. Cut back to Louise. She wonders why her husband had to challenge him to a duel. What could be the reason, “mais laquelle puisque vous ne m’aimez plus… car vous ne m’aimez plus, n’est pas?” With this question, with its painful expectations, we stay with her. We feel her persistent look upon Donati waiting for an answer, we watch as her expression changes, we see her running out of breath, closing her eyes and lowering her head. In this moment, Louise returns to her blind hope and Ophüls is ruthless. He is truthful to us and forces us to stay with her. He does not cut to Donati. We suffer with Louise, we feel the high of hope only to immediately fall hard into despair. Ophüls doesn’t spare us. He lets reality give us a huge slap. There is nothing else that can be done, there is no chance of happiness. It has passed, lost somewhere in the past decisions and in the traps of fate.
Louise tries to breathe but she cannot. She tries to speak, but her mouth is silent. She closes her eyes, bows her head and raises it again abruptly. She looks at Donati and we notice in her eyes how her delusion is being shattered in the worst way possible, through pain (and not love). 5 The fluctuations in this scene are exclusively created by her presence and by the shape delirium takes on her body. The scales of the shots and the cut points follow the fast pace of the frenzy taking over her. The image and its rhythm is controlled by the bipolarity of a slim hope to still find happiness and the irreversible and tragic reality. The blind belief that everything can still be different resurfaces briefly in the shape of irrational lapses. But nothing could ever have been different, because all along fate had its heavy hand set on life.
She gets up brusquely, the camera follows her in that movement and the cut from the previous shot to this one is so fast, it has such an enormous impulse, that the cut acts like a spasm, a violent and swift movement we cannot even follow. The camera stops and frames her standing and leaning on the chair as Donati quietly sits down. Now it is him that cannot look at her, that does not have the strength to face her. He consciously feels the weight of reality, and the vision of Louise’s torn up body and soul is too violent and awkward. It is not worth it anymore.
Louise tells him the General is going to kill him, that it is suicide. Donati looks at her and says “peut être” with the same levity with which he could be speaking of some ordinary subject. I still cannot decipher this gentleman that meets suicide with such ease. Could it be a simple matter of honour, or is it something else? Is it confusion in the middle of a messy game, a lack of will, a disappointment because of the lies that surrounded him? Or could it be precisely a matter of honour that is not actually that simple? This Italian gentleman’s composure seems to be a part of his identity’s core. To him, politeness is above passion, while Louise does not inhibit herself from making a scandal and the General does not hesitate in fighting to save his love. Donati never reveals too much. He keeps his head down after seeing Louise’s despair when faced with the absence of an answer. “Car vous ne m’aimez plus, n’est pas?” Maybe he does not know very well what to do, maybe he is too down to earth for that romance. It is not easy keeping up with Louise’s intensity. Maybe. I am not sure.
“Peut être” – and the screen goes black right on top of Donati’s words, barely allowing us to see his face. He who never reveals himself too much to us, Ophüls doesn’t allow us to see more of him. Not only is this a gesture respecting and in agreement with the attitude of an aristocratic gentleman, but also, as I have previously said, this reveals to us that Donati is not the centre, but simply what accidentally triggers something that was already there.
Final Remarks/In Conclusion
“I am not seating down, but floating in a prism of light.” (Schefer, 1980 : 87)
I began this article speaking of Jean-Louis Schefer and of our paradoxical existence as two beings at the same time, the one we have learned to be and the one we conceal. The latter, the one we do not understand because we face it so rarely, is the one that, unknowingly to us, controls our true desire and squirms inside us with frustration. In the encounter with cinema, he awakens. He is awakened by images and in turn gives them their vitality. Having started by writing about this mutability in cinema, that is also its risk, the risk of consuming and destroying me, I find myself at the end of these pages completely entangled in Madame de . . .‘s body. I can’t find the place where I start and the film ends. To my eyes we both seem coincident, brothers, and I can no longer tell if the conclusions I have drawn are the ones the film gave me or the ones I looked for.
I think the word I repeated the most was seems. My language adapts and transforms, and everything I see is something that seems, things written and registered here are unstable, but that as soon as I watch the film once more I confirm them according to my sensibility, becoming unquestionable all over again. I repeat myself and contradict myself just like Louise. The images replay in my mind and what I feel and reiterate may not be reality, but I feel it as the truth. Like her, perhaps I am living an illusion to other people’s eyes, but to mine I have never felt anything so authentic.
What does it then seem as I come to an end? That Louise’s eyes see with the “passionate sense of the potential,” as defined by Kierkegaard: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!” (Kierkegaard 40) From the moment Louise bumps into Donati, she seems to find in him all those possibilities she always wanted to discover, the desires she wanted to fulfil, desires which perhaps made her occasionally feel her life’s futility without quite understanding why. From that point on, she seems to be blinded by possibility and passion. She no longer sees what surrounds her; she does not see the wine, but only its sparkle, and follows its perfume. Intoxicated, she gazes at the deep, desperate self within her after that clash with Donati. She senses the despair of not being who she should be. She is not that person, that life, those clothes, and I dare to say that Donati is the one that allows her to notice that, but it is not in him that her true self lies. If their passion had a happy ending, lasting for a long or a short period of time, it would probably end all the same, leaving Louise in a strange uncertainty and dissatisfaction all over again. It is not Donati but, like her, I do not know what it is as well.
And how did I feel this? I asked myself in the beginning how this disease was represented throughout the film, and I arrive at the end with the certainty that only cinema could show in this unbelievable way the passionate look of the potential and the other looks less passionate and more realistic that surround it. Louise’s confusion is so consuming that it influences entirely the film’s inner rhythm and it is in the slips, the gaps, the contradictions, the misencounters, that I feel reality’s inadequacy and fall into the illusion. The General’s silences, Louise’s fixed stare, the words which are conflicting clues filled by gestures that speak of the unspoken, everything in harmony with the camera, while the editing seems to tell us that nothing is simple and that behind the surface lurks something much more complex, mysterious and profound. And that is why I write “perhaps,” “it seems,” and I question myself so often. I do not know, but it is not about knowing, but about wondering, discovering, digging.
I suggest that Louise’s interior world becomes so intense that the exterior begins to exist just as an extension of that pursuit that obsesses her, that illusion that she feeds. And the General is a fatality of that. Actually, all of them are, even Donati who dies in the duel. And in this case the eyes are indeed a window to the soul, one we can see, but not open. They reveal how Louise’s soul is closed to the conscious world as it is already far too deep into the subconscious. Blinded by her desire, the symptom emerges with such intensity that this disease begins to consume her to destruction. This unbridled passion is without a question a disease and the disquieting part of it all is that Louise is not at all some strange and crazy woman we observe with compassion and awkwardness. We see ourselves in certain pieces of her and her delusion is familiar to us. We feel her somnambulant walk, we squirm with her desire for something that, when discovered, is too incommensurable to ignore; we share her despair. We do not know if we were infected or if we were sick all along, and that’s what scares us.
And it is in here, “in this mysterious shelter, in this interior open to the most violent of winds, it’s only there in the very matter of language and history that men speak to each other” (Schefer, 2009: 112). Now, so close to the end, it seems to me that these conclusions were not drawn according to my will, and that they are unquestionable forces that were in the images, truths that scratched me, leaving in bare sight my flesh and that of the film. “Ophüls’ heart never ceased to oscillate mysteriously – even, perhaps, painfully,” (Beylie 33) and it is here under Louise’s gaze that I started oscillating with it.
Beylie, Claude, Ophüls, A Mulher e o Homem, pg. 31 in Max Ophüls, Cinemateca Portuguesa, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisboa, 1983.
Conley, Tom, Reading Ordinary Viewing in Diacritics, Volume 15, Nº 2, 1985
Gallagher, Tag, Max Ophüls: A New Art – But Who Cares? in Senses of Cinema, Nº 22, 2002
Keller, Sarah, As Regarding Rhythm : Rhythm in Modern Poetry and Cinema in Intermediality: History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies, Nº 16, 2010
Kierkegaard, Søren, Ou-Ou, Um Fragmento de Vida, Relógio d’Água, Lisboa, 2013
Mandoki, Katya, An Enigmatic Text: Schefer’s Quest upon a Thing Unknown in Film-Philosophy Journal, Volume 2, Nº 1, 1998
Schefer, Jean Louis, L’homme ordinaire du cinéma, Cahiers du Cinéma, Gallimard, 1980
Schefer, Jean Louis, The Enigmatic Body: Essays on the Arts, Cambridge University Press, 2009
Vaughn, Hunter, Mutants We All: Jean-Louis Schefer and our Cinematic Civilization, Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System, 2012
- Like Søren Kierkegaard wrote in Either/Or: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.” ↩
- Returning briefly to the always wise and fatalistic Kierkegaard, in the words of his anonymous aesthete “A” in Book I of Either/Or: “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” ↩
- It is as if Louise is already grieving for Donati’s death, for her own death. On this point it is curious to think of the words Schefer wrote on the death of his mentor, Barthes: “No death can belong to us; what belongs to us is something like one more ghost, a few moments when we’re absent from the world because we’re thinking about someone who’s no longer here and to whom we can never again, so long as we have body, speak in a normal voice” (2009: 113) ↩
- “I must have known this was here, else why did I come straight to it?” wrote John Steinbeck in To a God Unknown ↩
- The delirium is destroyed, but not cured. She approaches death and not sanity. On this note, it is interesting to think of Freud’s concept of delirium and of “cure by love” as a path of return from the subconscious to the conscious: “The process of recuperation is accomplished when an amorous relapse happens . . . but this relapse is irremissible, for the symptoms on account of which the treatment was undertaken are nothing but the traces of former struggles against the repressed or its recurrence and can be solved and washed away only by a new high-tide of these very passions.” (Freud 126) ↩