| The Earrings of Madame de … is Max Ophuls’s masterpiece, the film that most thoroughly embodies his aesthetic and romantic sensibilities, intertwining the two in a beautiful waltz, which not incidentally, also happens to be the narrative centerpiece of the film. Ophuls’s gorgeously pronounced long takes and fluid camera movements, which some have derided as showy or pretentious, are key to the film’s emotional structure, both emphasizing the sometimes fateful, sometimes ironic interconnections among its tragic characters and underscoring the decadent luxury of turn-of-the-century Parisian aristocracy. Ophuls’s films are always beautiful, but The Earrings of Madame de … is particularly striking in the way it harmoniously marries visual technique with its romantic narrative, which in other hands could have easily been turgid melodrama.|
The earrings of the title are a gift from a general (Charles Boyer) to his younger wife, Louise (Danielle Darrieux), the Madame de … of the title (their last name is never explicitly stated, suggesting a kind of universality despite their upper-class prominence). In the film’s opening sequence, Louise decides to sell them in order to pay for a gambling debt; she chooses these particular earrings--large, heart-shaped diamonds--because they mean nothing to her, which is the first of the film’s many ironies given that they later become, in her eyes, the embodiment of love itself. The jeweler to whom she sells the earrings alerts the general, who then buys them back and gives them as a gift to his mistress (Lia Di Leo), who then sells them in Constantinople when she loses all her money at the roulette table (the fact that the earrings are constantly being sold to pay for gambling debts is suggestive of the fateful nature of life--sometimes you win, sometimes you lose). They are then purchased by Fabrizio Donati (the great neorealist director Vittorio De Sica), an Italian baron who fatefully crosses paths with Louise. They end up falling in love, and he gives the earrings back to her as a romantic gift, completely unaware of their origin.
Although the circular journey of the earrings is complete--leaving Louise as simple objects and then returning to her as symbols of great passion--the story has only reached the beginning of its second act, and the earrings take on new meaning and cause Louise to tell a series of lies to both accommodate her new relationship with Donati and to create a ruse under which she can wear the earrings in public. The web of deceit that she weaves, partially for her own protection and partially to ensure a sort of purity in her blossoming romance, becomes the noose that eventually strangles her, as it puts her at odds with both ends of the romantic triangle in which she is ensnared.
What is most amazing about Ophuls’s film is the manner in which he stages this conflict of love and possession without making any of the characters villains, but rather victims of their own actions. The general is a commanding, strict figure who seems incapable of genuine affection (which is perhaps why Louise has never truly loved him), but we feel sympathy for his position even as we recognize his hypocrisy (the earrings wind up back with Louise, after all, because he gave them to a mistress). On the other hand, Louise deceives all the men around her, but arguably it is in the pursuit of true love with no malicious intent. As far as Donati goes, as a baron and diplomat he has a certain code of honor to uphold, thus we cannot blame him entirely when he misunderstands Louise’s “white lies” as a kind of betrayal and acts accordingly.
Like Ophuls’s other French-language films of the 1950s, The Earrings of Madame de … is an opulent spectacle, the frame filled with lavish mise-en-scène and decadent characters whose perch at the upper stratum of society would seem to render them superficial, but in fact underscores the universality of love, passion, and the conflict they engender. Although the film unspools in ridiculously appointed bedrooms, drawing rooms, smoking rooms, and grand halls, Ophuls’s underlying humanity is the thing we remember. It is also telling that the film identifies primarily with Louise (a trademark of Ophuls’s oeuvre) and traces her development from an empty vessel of upper-class society to a romantic whose ultimately tragedy is her broken heart. Described as “an incorrigible flirt” by her own husband, Louise proves to be a woman of great feeling, who, like many of Ophuls’s heroines, is torn apart by her own romantic calamities. The heightened sense of emotion throughout The Earrings of Madame de … is perfectly modulated by Ophuls’s precise framing and fluid camerawork, which cohere with the beauty of a perfectly tuned waltz into what is clearly one of the masterworks of the French “Cinema of Quality.”
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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