The Greatest Film of All Time: Ophüls’ Madame de … Is Coming Back to Town

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). It was released in the United States under the somewhat misleading title, The Earrings of Madame de …. I say “misleading” because the American title makes the narrative seem more gimmicky than it really is. Yes, the shifting destinations and ownership of a pair of earrings tie the strands of the story together. But what the earrings signify, primarily, is the transformation and transfiguration of an initially frivolous and flirtatious society woman into a tragic victim of romantic rapture.

The Earrings of Madame de … will be shown in a new 35-millimeter print at Film Forum from Friday, March 16, to Thursday, March 29. If you’ve never seen this masterpiece, now is your chance—and even if you have, a second or third viewing is strongly recommended. If you don’t choose to take my word for the film’s sublimity, then heed the sagacious words of Dave Kehr instead: “Should the day ever come when movies are granted the same respect as the other arts, The Earrings of Madame de … will instantly be recognized as one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands.”

“Perfection,” proclaimed the late Pauline Kael, in one of her more perceptive pronouncements. And David Thomson delivers an eloquent encomium to Ophüls with a remarkably expansive entry in his much-honored The New Biographical History of Film.

Curiously, I’ve had a much harder time convincing my students in film class of the “greatness” of Ophüls and Madame de …. It may partly be a generation gap, and partly the youthful suspicion of romanticism in some of its less cynical guises. Then again, even among my contemporaries, I have become notorious over the years for my ecstatic—to the point of orgasmic—addiction to camera movement as an expression of the tyranny of time in the drama of human life. This predilection on my part may be something I picked up from the unified-visual-field theories of the late André Bazin.

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, prompting an even larger torrent of hate mail than The Voice had received in 1960 after my rave review of Psycho as the work of film’s greatest artist, Alfred Hitchcock. (I couldn’t blame Bazin for that one: He had always been comparatively cool to Hitchcock’s work, unlike his enthusiasm for that of Orson Welles and William Wyler.)

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).

In any event, three good reasons you should see The Earrings of Madame de … are the presence and performances of Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer and Vittorio De Sica. This celestial triangle has never been surpassed in grace, charm and, yes, wit and humor.

Against the Grain

Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, from a screenplay by Paul Laverty, introduces a new egalitarian element to the Irish struggle against the British Crown in that interval in the early 1920’s when a truce was declared in the Irish War of Independence, and an Irish Free State was formed, with controversially limited powers. Mr. Loach and Mr. Laverty cover much the same ground in The Wind That Shakes the Barley as Neil Jordan dealt with in Michael Collins (1996), in which Liam Neeson played the title character, the first (and eventually assassinated) leader of the Irish Free State, against Alan Rickman’s Eamon de Valera, the unsympathetically presented leader of the bitter-enders, and later the first prime minister of a still-partitioned Ireland. From the billing alone, one can surmise that the two films take opposite sides on the issue of the Irish Free State.

What especially distinguishes Barley from every other film on “the troubles” that I’ve seen is that it’s the only movie that even mentions the name of James Connolly, the Marxist Socialist leader of the doomed 1916 uprising against British rule. It was Connolly who argued for the redistribution of Irish land from both British and Irish landowners, who shared a vested interest (along with the Irish branch of the Roman Catholic Church) in continued British dominion over the Irish people. Mr. Loach and Mr. Laverty echo Connelly’s anti-capitalist and anti-clerical theories through their protagonist, Damien (Cillian Murphy), a medical student at University College Cork who has just qualified for a place in London to complete his medical studies.

Damien is tempted to go simply to escape the guerrilla fighting and the brutal Black and Tan reprisals by the British. But when he experiences one such act of humiliating repression, he chucks his career to join the fray alongside his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney). His group ambushes a British patrol, but is then forced to watch helplessly as a larger British unit terrorizes an Irish farm family and manhandles Damien’s beloved Bernadette (Mary Murphy) by cutting off her hair to make her reveal the whereabouts of Damien’s group.

The small-scale scenes of violence in this conspicuously pastoral film make up in excruciatingly loud yelling and howling what they lack in massive, effects-driven spectacle. The deafening noise in Barley amounts to a calculated assault on the presumably complacent audience—as if a period film had some message for us today. The civil war that eventually pits brother against brother is linked by Mr. Loach himself to the current events in Iraq. Yet it’s not clear if the prosperous Ireland of today has met the egalitarian standards proposed 90 years ago by James Connolly. Certainly, the reactionary de Valera was no savior of Ireland’s poor and landless. Hence, an ineffable sadness pervades Barley, as if the despairingly—though lyrically—sympathetic champion of the lower classes in such Loach classics as Riff-Raff (1990), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird Ladybird (1994) and My Name Is Joe (1998) had decided that the battle for equality in Ireland and everywhere else had been foredoomed from the beginning.

There is no happy ending in Barley—only a symmetry of suffering in the killing that brings no solutions to the problems. At the very least, Barley doesn’t partake of the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed anti-war pictures that provide enough violence to satisfy the most bloodthirsty spectators. But though Mr. Loach has escaped that trap, in the process he doesn’t provide any compensatory redemption. Ultimately, Barley is the antithesis of a feel-good entertainment—but it is to be commended for its unflinching seriousness.

Extra Credit

James Scurlock’s Maxed Out takes a long-overdue swipe at the shamelessly predatory tactics of the credit-card and home-mortgage industries, which are feeding on the most economically vulnerable members of our society with tactics that make the old mob loan sharks look like Good Samaritans. Mr. Scurlock has focused on extreme cases, to be sure—like the two college students who couldn’t pay their student loans and committed suicide as a result. My only reservation about the film is simply that it is another case of preaching to the converted. The “buy-now-pay-later” theology is so much a part of the American way of life that the entire population seems to be lazing about in an opium den of denial. But see it anyway, if only to check out whether you are part of the problem without admitting it or even realizing it. The Greatest Film of All Time: Ophüls’ Madame de … Is Coming Back to Town