The Earrings of Madame de ...
December 3, 2018
Vittorio de Sica
1 Hr., 40 Mins.
hese earrings, diamond and heart-shaped, mean nothing. When we first see them, their owner, a materialistic countess named Louise (Danielle Darrieux), is considering selling them. She received them as a wedding present from her husband, a general named André (Charles Boyer), with whom she has a rather companion-like relationship (they sleep in separate beds), but she never wears them. Because she is in
debt — her purchase-heavy lifestyle has finally taken its toll — it seems rational to get rid of them. Eventually, she will. To salvage her husband’s feelings, she will pretend to have lost them at the opera.
The earrings will come back into Louise’s life. Once a rumor builds that the earrings have been stolen has gained prominence, the jeweler to whom Louise sold the accessory, Remy (Jean Debucourt), contacts André to buy them back. In a brisk move, the latter gives them to the woman (Lia Di Lio) he’s seeing on the side, even though he intends to break up with her. In turn, the mistress sells them. Then they will be retrieved by Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who lays eyes on Louise for the first time at a train station, thinks he will never see her again, yet serendipitously sees their respective carriages crash into each other weeks later. A love affair, marked by white lies told by our heroine, will begin. Fabrizio will soon give the earrings to Louise. Tragedy will strike.
There is a becoming circularity to The Earrings of Madame de …, the German-born Max Ophüls’ third film of the 1950s. (He would die, at the age of 54, in 1957.) Not including the way the eponymous possession seems to come back, with boomerang-like annularity, it is something of a dramatic merry-go-round. Louise’s life, which is encumbered by boring material and comfort — gloves, fur coats, designer dresses, multi-karat jewelry, and exorbitant perfume will come to her if she so much as snaps a painted, perfectly manicured finger — is rather meaningless as the feature begins. It will become interrupted by all-powerful passion in spots, but, ultimately, go back to that frivolity because of tragedy and chance once the finale makes way.
The Earrings of Madame de… is among the prettiest of tragic romances. The cinematographer Christian Matras’ camera is restless; moving and moving, and with a penchant for the uninterrupted long take, it exquisitely regards the glittery material defining Louise’s milieu as if it were perusing a vast boutique perched in the middle of an upper-class-attracting shopping district. The black and white of the photography is glowy and hazed — it gleams almost as much as Louise’s perennially wetted lips, her abundance of gems. The performers are beautiful: the beguiling and glamorous Darrieux, the dashing De Sica, and the gorgeously cruel-looking Boyer are a pantheon of elegant figures.
Ophüls and his actors do not lose themselves in the decorative style. Though the garnishing at first makes for the most delectable of eye candy, not far into the film does the ornamentation begin to suffocate. They are materials by which Louise, who longs to leave her loveless marriage for her charged relationship with Fabrizio, feels trapped. They are guilt-inducing reminders of the comfort with which André has provided her, and thus is it impossible to let everything go. (André’s domineering attitude doesn’t help matters, either.) After a while, the alluring tableaus start accentuating the hurt. How could Louise possibly feel such heartbreak when she has so much?
The shift in how we consider the ambience is a testament to Ophüls’ mastery as a stylist. Unlike the most visual of filmmakers, who like to use surface-level pleasures as mere supplements to the drama, they are subversively entwined. Yes, everything is luxurious and attractive. But the luxury and the attraction will come to have a great cost. By the end, it will all mean nothing in comparison to the love that’s been lost. The earrings, though, will mean everything. A