First Take: Antonio Mendez Esparza on “The Earrings of Madame De…”

Discovering films, I often follow the path others have opened for me, looking for what they have revered and loved with piercing passion and devotion long before I came along. Bazin still resonates because, in his words, his devotion for cinema — his absolute belief in it — was focused on what it could be, what it should be, and his own reflections on what it was. Bazin shone a new light. He illuminated the screen with his words.

I am from the generation of the holy VHS and Betamax tape; we still kept a black-and-white TV in the house. Sony Trinitron was the holy grail. The movie theater was still sacred. Filmmakers were discovered in magazines and conversations. You would often read about a film in a black-and-white book before being able to find it, perhaps years later. In your memory lay imprinted the words and the experience of someone else. One may argue that one had a literary relationship with films — words about the film conjured their magic before the images arrived.

My second year in film school, I took an international cinema course that spanned from the ’30s to the ’60s, a course of impossible scope. The professor was Andrew Sarris, father of the auteur theory who, in his first class, acknowledged the immensity of the challenge, then confessed that what he meant by an “international film course” was his own personal survey of seminal, mostly European cinema. Mr. Sarris was then in his later years, walking with difficulty. But he would settle himself in a chair, leaning his cane on another one, and put his hands on his knees, and, leaning forward, would begin to talk to a roomful of self-referential punks, filled with passion and reverence for this history he was imparting. And his personal relationship with cinema became a revelation, as he revealed his own Bazinian sense of Cinema. He introduced me to many films (or movies, as he always called them), and it would be hard to pick a favorite, but one remains seared in my memory: Max Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame De…

The title in itself is a mystery… somehow unfinished, interrupted; I even thought there might be a typo in the paper syllabus. The film starts as a bourgeoisie tale of love and betrayal, but blossoming quickly into a film so refined, so grounded in feeling, it becomes an existential battle for love. The acting, though staged, becomes transcendent. The camera whispers like a secret character. And when the ending comes, it is brief and devastating.

My initial dismissiveness was overcome, with quite some resistance, as little-by-little Madame De… woke me, and soon I found myself so trapped in a labyrinth of gestures, feelings, and emotions that, though I was watching a work of fiction, I was also discovering an impossible manifestation and urge for love. By the end I felt that the human soul had been dissected for my own illumination. This was at a time when I was committed to the political film, film as a confrontation (e.g. The Battle of Algiers). The Earrings of Madame De… transformed me from the inside. It pierced me through. And at a time of political cinema, it was as political as any just by focusing on the humanity of the characters.

When the lights came up and I found myself deeply affected by an ending that still haunts me, the professor was smiling, and in him I sensed the same passion he must have felt the first time. It was unwavering — if anything, only increased. Certainly it had passed many tests over the years.

Perhaps in every screening he confronted a doubt, found a different detail, a new answer, and, after many viewings, Madame De… was very much alive for him and those who discovered it with (and through) him along the way.

I only saw The Earrings of Madame De… one time, and it lives in me as the kind of vague and resonant memory that holds those things we treasure. I’m afraid to revisit the actual artifact out of fear that a newer experience might diminish its worth. I forever gained a sense and belief that film can reveal deep truths and put us in contact with our most essential self.

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Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Life and Nothing More opens at Film Forum on October 24. More information is available here.

First Takes: short reflections on memorable viewing experiences. Read more entries.

 

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