- Director: Max Ophuls
- Writers: Marcel Achard, Max Ophuls, and Annette Wadement, based on Madame de… by Louise de Vilmorin
- Starring: Danielle Derrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica, Jean Debucourt, Jean Galland, and Lea di Lio
- Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#33), 1 Oscar nomination (Best Costumes – Black & White)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel and HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video
From the perspective of how a movie is technically put together, what shots are used, and the general art of film “craft,” The Earrings of Madame de… is certainly fascinating. As a story, it seems fairly bog standard. Married woman falls hard for a man who is not her husband, and their downfall ensues. It is an all-around very well done version of that story, certainly, not only the directing but the ornate set designs, cinematography, and, yes, the performances. There is a line of thought that the movie only recently started to regain esteem as a classic of mid-century French cinema because it is really a movie focused on a woman, with the sort of problems that women have. Its biggest theme is about the power dynamics between men and women, and how those dynamics can negatively affect everyone involved. For me, it remained mostly satisfying as an intellectual exercise, rather than on an emotional level.
Max Ophuls was born in Saarbrücken, which is in Germany today but is right on a German-French border that has shifted repeatedly over the years. His first film that is well known today, Liebelei, is in German, but Ophuls, fled the Nazis to France almost immediately after that film was released in 1933. He was very highly successful as a director in France for several years, then when the Nazis invaded France he was again had to leave everything, finding sanctuary in Hollywood. Ophuls made a series of American films, the most-watched of which today is probably Letter from an Unknown Woman (starring Joan Fontaine). After the war he returned to France and made several more popular movies, including The Earrings of Madame De…
Ophuls is sometimes thought of as the “first auteur,” under the theory first advanced around the 1960s of a director as the “author” of a movie, on the basis that, while Hollywood directors of Ophuls’ day were often treated interchangeably by the studio system, Ophuls had many very specific stylistic touches. These included long, smooth camera movements and tracking shots. He often set his characters as framed by ornate sets, or reflected in mirrors, or both. He tended to make movies with female protagonists, nearly all of whom, weirdly, he gave names starting with the letter “L,” in this case, Louise. The actor James Mason, who worked with Ophuls on two of his movies in English, at one point present Ophuls with a poem about him, which included the lines: “A shot that does not call for tracks/Is agony for dear old Max/Who, separated from his dolly,/Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.” And so on.
What might simply sound like stylistic quirks are actually some of the most important aspects of The Earrings of Madame de… In one scene, for example, Louise (played by Danielle Derrieux) and her lover Baron Donati (none other than the great Italian director Vittorio De Sica, who as I’ve written about previously was an actor before he started directing) dance for the first time. The camera follows them all the way around a large dance floor in a shot that would be extremely technically difficult even in the modern day, much less in 1953. Then we fade into several other nights of dancing, indicating the passage of time, until the pair is just dancing on their own as the servants clean up. It is a scene that no other director could have made except for Ophuls.
As the title might suggest, the story is driven by a series of coincidences surrounding the title character’s earrings. She is never referred by name, as was sometimes done in literature from Belle Epoque France, when this story is set. At those times when her name might be said out loud, it is elided by a character heading out of earshot or is inaudible because of other noise on the soundtrack. Needing money to keep her in the lifestyle she has been accustomed to, the heroine sells earrings she received from her government official husband (Charles Boyer) as a wedding gift to a jeweler. She then lies to her husband, saying she lost them, which gets the police involved after he insists they must have been stolen at the opera. Seeing the story in the newspaper, the jeweler informs him that he has the earrings, at which point the husband buys them back. He then gives them to his mistress (Lia di Lio), because this is France, before putting her on the Orient Express to Istanbul. She loses them at the casino there and they end up in a jewelry shop window, where Italian diplomat Donati buys them. He later is reassigned to Paris, where he and our heroine fall for each other. He then gives her the earrings, not realizing she already, by coincidence, owned them before. She tells her husband that she suddenly found them again, but he knows she’s lying, so soon the affair is exposed. He forces her to give the earrings to his sister, who has just given birth to a boy, but the sister then sells them back to the same jeweler. Desperate for what she now sees as the symbol of her relationship to Donati, the bereft Madame begs him to give them back to her in exchange for all of her other jewelry in one of the final scenes.
Got all that? The plot is, of course, centered around a few highly unlikely contrivances, but to complain about these seems unnecessarily curmudgeonly. The theme is about gender dynamics and the way men exercise control over women, and the power differences between the two sexes. When Madame’s husband puts his foot down about her affair, she has no choice but to follow his orders, even when they are emotionally devastating. His own hypocrisy is added to this because he has his own young mistress. Affairs for men, we gather, are part of the deal, but for women they are forbidden. Boyer brings these themes to the fore through his forceful performance, at first seeming friendly but descending into being emotionally abusive. His very thick, black eyebrows do a lot of the work.
Whatever your level of interest in its plot and its themes, The Earrings of Madame de… is a feast from a visual standpoint, and I’d probably still recommend it even if the plot doesn’t sound like your thing. One thing I’d say is that if the convoluted plot doesn’t really make sense as it’s happening, that’s OK. That’s what happened to me the first time, and then I watched again it with commentary from two English-language film critics and it made a lot more sense. You don’t need to feel compelled to do this.