"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 30, 2011

"The Earrings of Madame de ..." (1953) by Max Ophuls (Film review)

We only get to hear the first name of the heroine of The Earrings of Madame De - her last name is withheld with a wink. Louise has been indiscreet and as is the case with offenders whose names are withheld in the papers, Ophuls replaces her last name as it were with a few dots or a dash. For he is going to tell a story of infidelity and appearances.

Comtesse Louise, Madame de ... (Danielle Darrieux, who also appeared in La Ronde), is a rather spoiled child-woman (just look at her clothes and jewels, when she opens her treasure-filled cupboards at the start of the film), married to a much older general (Charles Boyer). Recently, Louise has been shopping so heavily that she has to sell some valuables in order to pay off her debts and avoid a scandal. She picks the earrings her husband gave her as a wedding present - something which is indicative of the cold relations of the pair - they sleep in different bedrooms so far away from each other that they have to shout to say goodnight. 

The General is a typical bourgeois, to whom appearance is everything. The irony is that when Louise pretends to have lost her earrings to explain their absence, this creates such a lot of commotion - the general himself looking for them all over the opera house they are visiting - that it becomes a small scandal after all, even noted by the papers. This alerts the jeweler (Louise has sold the earrings back to the original jeweler from which her husband bought them). The jeweler visits the General and he, again to avoid further scandals, buys back the earrings to keep the whole affair quiet. 

To be rid of the jewels, the General gives them as a farewell present to his mistress who is just then leaving for Constantinople (against her will, probably packed off by the General to avoid a scandal?). The General hopes he will never see the earrings anymore, but he is wrong... 

Via-via the jewels fall into the hands of an Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati (played by Neorealist director Vittorio De Sica), who comes as Ambassador to Vienna. As they move in the same circles, he meets the General and his wife (he has by chance already seen Louise on two occasions and become interested in the beautiful woman). He falls in love with Louise as they dance endless waltzes in glittering ballrooms, where the swirling camera of Ophuls waltzes around them. A whole courtship told in a dance. "They're seen everywhere, because they can't meet anywhere." By showing various balls in rapid succession, Ophuls gives a beautiful visualization of the passage of time. Finally, the Baron presents the earrings which he found in a shop in Constantinopel to Louise, who recognizes them, of course, but does not inform the Baron about their background. Instead, she now treasures them as a memento from her admirer and token of their clandestine romance.

The feelings Louise and the Baron have for each other are giving rise to a small scandal and so the General is alerted. Louise has a weak heart and therefore is prone to fainting spells, but one such spell (when the Baron on a hunt has fallen from his horse) just lasts longer than usual and therefore attracts attention from gossipy society. The General in fact doesn't mind if his wife flirts a bit (he is quite a philanderer himself), but scandals should be avoided at all cost. The code permits sex, but not love.

The General tells the truth of the earrings to the Baron ("It is incompatible with your dignity, and mine, for my wife to accept a gift of such value from you"). The Baron experiences this as a cold shower and is cured of his love for Louise - he is deeply hurt as Louise has never taken him into her confidence about the story behind the jewels.

Louise is inconsolable and although the General is very attentive to her and tries to nurse her back to health, she is blind to the love her husband now discovers he in fact feels for her. As the General tells her, their marriage is "only superficially superficial," - although they have fallen into formal roles towards each other, he loves her and has been patient with her, enduring misery. But she is too selfish to realize this...

In the finale, the General challenges the Baron to a duel. Louise follows them into the woods to stop the fight. One shot rings out - that of the General, but the second shot, which would be coming from the Baron, never sounds and she collapses in agony, victim to her heart condition. The evening before, she has donated her earrings to the local church. 

More than this resume can show, this is one of the greatest films of all time. Ophuls is just as inventive a director as Welles and he loves large sweeping camera movements and long takes like Renoir and Mizoguchi. See only the sweeping take when Louise enters the jeweler's shop, or even more so, her first visit to church - not to speak about the incredible dancing scenes. Or, on a different note, the scene where Louise is on a forced trip to the Italian lakes and sits day after day writing letters to her lover, only to confess later to him that she lacked the courage to mail her letters - we see those letters, torn into shreds, dancing in the air, and then turning into the snow falling in the next scene. A tragedy Ophuls would make only one more film after this (Lola Montes) and die at the young age of 55.

That The Earrings of Madame de... has never been accorded the rank it deserves (why is a film about a gangster family - of all subjects - so often put as No.1?), perhaps because he was regarded as a director of "women's films." But that should be irrelevant in our more enlightened times. After all, Japanese directors as Ozu and Mizoguchi are also awarded first rank status, so it is time to give Ophuls the dues he deserves. The Earrings of Madame De... sets out as a simple comedy of errors but goes on to plumb surprising depths. More than that, like all great directors, in the visual compass of film, Ophuls manages to make life's inexorable flow almost tangible which leaves us as viewers a bit sadder, a bit wiser.
Available from Criterion