"Madame de...was a very elegant, distinguished and celebrated woman, seemingly destined to a delightful, uncomplicated existence. Probably nothing would have happened had it not been for those jewels..."
In the opening sequence you see one of the most memorable tracking shots of the film. The camera swoops over the shoulder of a woman whose face you yet cannot see, as it fluidly follows her body movements as she goes through all the materialistic items that give her happiness. She sorts through all her favorite jewelry, whether its earrings, necklaces or bracelets, with some she likes more than others, some she would never ever give away. The camera then follows her to her closet as she goes through several expensive fur coats. It then follows her back to the table where she takes a seat and looks at her reflection through a small mirror. That's the first glimpse we finally see of the beautiful countess Madame, Louise (Danielle Darrieux), a vain, spoiled and superficial woman who has amassed considerable debts due to her wealthy lifestyle. To settle these debts, she chooses to sell her large diamond earrings, a wedding present from her husband the General, André (Charles Boyer). Unfortunately because of selling these earrings she will set off a chain reaction of financial and carnal consequences that can end only in tragedy and despair. The Earrings of Madame de is one of the most beautiful love stories ever made, as it visually glitters and dazzles with elegant class and exquisite beauty. The film is famous for its elaborate camera movement, its graceful style, its fancy costumes, and its extravagant dinners and elegant dances, all the while beneath the artifice it creates a heart, and tragically breaks it. The Earrings of Madame de was directed by the legendary director Max Ophuls, who has been known to feature distinctive smooth camera movements, complex tracking shots, fluid dolly sweeps, and elegant crane shots which influenced the work of such directors as Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson. "He gave camera movements its finest hours in the history of the cinema," stated critic Andrew Harris. In one of the most beautifully staged shots in the history of film, Ophuls presents a montage of several nights dancing out on the ballroom, all the while the changing of costumes and settings indicate different time transitions, while the dance movements and the music continues without any interruptions or unbroken moments; which indicates to the audience the two lovers long and emotional affair. On the last night it finally ends with the circling couple gradually left all alone on the dance floor, while one by one each orchestra member packs up and goes home, and a servant girl extinguishes the candles, and a black drop-cloth is thrown over the harp, while the camera moves in until the screen is black and the dance is finally over. The brilliant use of storytelling all told through a dance resembles the famous montage in Orson Welles Citizen Kane, in which a marriage slowly deteriorates through a series of breakfasts between husband and wife.
In the opening sequence you see one of the most memorable tracking shots of the film. The camera comes over the shoulder of a woman who you cannot yet see her face, and it follows her body movements as she goes through all the materialistic items that make her happy. "Would should I do?" You see her picking out her favorite jewelry, whether its earrings, necklaces or bracelets. Some she likes more than others, some she would never ever give away. "I like these the least." The camera then follows her to her closet as she goes through several expensive fur coats. "I refuse to give up my furs. I'm too fond of them. I'd rather die then give this up." It then eventually follows her back to the table where she sits down and looks in a small mirror. That's the first shot you finally see of the woman who is the star of the film, the countess named Madame, Louise (Danielle Darrieux).
Louise leaves her beautiful large estate while her husband the General is still asleep. She first heads to the church and makes a quick prayer. "Dear saint, please make him buy them. I won't forget it. Amen." She then heads to the jeweler's and asks the jeweler Monsieur Remy to keep a secret. Monsieur Remy says of course he can since it's the ladies that bring them their clients. "The thing is...I'm in debt. You know, I spend a great deal. I'm in financial straits at the moment and I thought about selling these diamond earrings." Monsieur Remy knows the value more than anyone else since he sold them to her husband for their wedding. He is hesitant at first and worrying Louise she starts to have another fainting spell which happens to her a lot under stress because of a weak heart.
Monsieur Remy calms her down and tells her he will be able to come to some arrangement. When he asks her what she will tell her husband she says she will think of something. In which she does by designing an elaborate plot that she somehow looses them when her and the General attend the opera.
While attending the opera Madame, Louise says, "My earrings are gone! My earrings must have fallen off!" Her husband searches throughout the opera to see if they have fallen on the floor and outside inside the carriage that they have arrived in. While leaving the theatre the General is pulled aside by a friend and is told that while looking for the earrings he gave Mr. Paramere's wife a rather unpleasant stare. The General replies by saying, "Meaning I suspected she stole him? Tell him he should have chosen a less attractive wife, and that I've often caught him looking at my wife."
The search for the lost earrings eventually reaches the newspaper with stories suggesting they could have been stolen. When Monsieur Remy who bought the earrings from Louise reads this he eventually goes to confront the General about it; afraid his business could be at risk being caught in a scandal.
"I've never been in such an awkward position. It's about your madame. She brought me these yesterday."
"I couldn't believe she'd sell them without your knowledge."
"I thought that by buying them..."
"What are you saying, Monsieur Remy?"
"I thought I was doing both of you a favor."
"I believe I don't follow. I sometimes do favors for others but I avoid letting others do them for me. "
"A good policy."
The General buys them back from Monsieur Remy and later meets up with his mistress who is going away for Constantinople and decides to give the earrings to her as a goodbye gift.
That evening with Louise the General playfully keeps listening to his wife continue on with her lie of the lost earrings knowing the truth. He starts throwing out names of people who work for them that could have stolen them. Louise says, "I think you were probably right to begin with. I just lost them. It's all my fault." You notice an unhappy marriage from the beginning with these two because of how easy the two of them can lie to one another and that they also sleep in separate beds.
Unfortunately when in Constantinople the mistress looses all her money from gambling and eventually sells the earrings to a small shop in the town. They are then later purchased by a baron by the named of Fabrizio Donati played by the great Italian Neorealism director Vittorio De Sica who ironically is on his way to be a diplomat in the same city that Louise and the General happen to live in.
During that time by a series of strange multiple circumstances, Donati (Vittorio de Sica) and Louise meet each other. The first time is at the train station in Basel with Donati noticing Louise's beauty but losing her.
The second time is when their horse carriages crash into one another. Donati says to her, "I don't know how to apologize. My driver is so clumsy. I'll have to reward him for his clumsiness. I never thought I'd see you again." When she says they never met before he says he saw her at customs in Basel two weeks ago. He then tells her, "Its fate." Wondering when they'd meet again she says "soon...because fate is on our side."
They then meet again like they believed they would at a ballroom gathering. Donati becomes infatuated with Louise immediately and when chatting with her husband her husband warns him to be careful of his wife because she is an incorrigible flirt. He says, "You know torture through hope?"
When the General goes off to war Donat and Louise start spending a lot of time together slowly falling in love. In one of the most beautifully staged shots in the history of film, Ophuls presents a montage of several nights dancing out on the ballroom, all the while the changing of costumes and settings indicate different time transitions, while the dance movements and the music continues without any interruptions or unbroken moments; which indicates to the audience the two lovers long and emotional affair. On the last night it finally ends with the circling couple gradually left all alone on the dance floor, while one by one each orchestra member packs up and goes home, and a servant girl extinguishes the candles, and a black drop-cloth is thrown over the harp, while the camera moves in until the screen is black and the dance is finally over.
The General later returns from war and when with Louise attending one of their many social functions; Donati is also present. When Louise sees Donati fall from his horse she gets frightened that he was hurt and has another fainting spell. The General realizes because of her worried reaction for Donati that she has feelings for him. Being depressed because she hasn't had the time to see Donati Louise tells her husband she wants to go away for a while; saying it's because of her making a public spectacle of herself by fainting the other day. The General knows the real reason and decides to have a real discussion with her. He says to her, "our conjugal bliss is a reflection of ourselves. It's only superficially superficial. We've been playing with fire, especially me. But your desire to leave proves that my faith in you was justified."
The day of her leaving Donati arrives to wish her goodbye. She says to him, "it's when we have the most to say that we can't speak." Donati then gives her a gift which he told her he bought in Constantinople. They are the very earrings she sold at the beginning of the film. When she receives them she is excited that they came back to her, because now they mean so much more given by a man she truly loves. She puts them on privately in her room now proud to wear them saying, "They had to go to Constantinople to make their way back to me."
Her husband isn't very pleased to see Donati arriving to wish his wife a farewell on her trip and when Louise sends him out, she tells Donati she will write to him, saying over and over "I don't love you, I don't love you, I don't love you...", because she truly does.
During her trip Donati writes to her and she tries to write him back but she can't. Her thoughts on why, is narrated by her in one of my favorite shots of the film. "I've answered all your letters my love, but I never had the courage to mail my replies. My innumerable letters that would have told you of the depth of my friendship...that has blossomed into love...on this endless journey." Louise is writing to her lover day after day but then rips them up and throws them out; and in one gorgeous shot the ripped up pieces of one of her letters merges into snow.
Months pass and when she finally returns they secretly meet up in a carriage with them proclaiming their love for each other. She tells him the earrings he gave her were her only comfort when gone and she will wear them always. When he asks her how she will be able to do that; she smiles and says his favorite line, "I don't love you...I don't love you...I don't love you..."
A slightly humorous scene in the film is when she sets up this preposterous lie where she purposely finds her lost earrings in one of her gloves in her drawer with us as the audience knowing her husband knows that she sold them earlier and that she's lying. She shouts, "My earrings! It's incredible!" Her husband says, " Incredible indeed. Are you sure they're the same ones?" His expression of her finding the earrings is priceless since we know he gave them to his mistress earlier and all these misunderstandings and confusion between the characters make this film extremely humourous at times.
Louise can now proudly wear the earrings without question and Donati and her still carry on with their secret affair. When attending the ball Louis and Donati are out dancing and he asks her how her husband allows her to wear the earrings he gave to her. She replies, "Thanks to a little white lie, the first I ever told. Well...one of the first."
That evening her husband pulls her aside and demands the earrings from Louise saying, "you have your secrets and I have mine." He then quietly takes Donati aside and asks Donati if he knew the prior owner of the earrings. Then he says, "You understand my friend, that it's incompatible with your dignity and mine for my wife to accept a gift of such value from you." He then explains to Donati the origins of the earrings and the lies Louise has spread to the both of them.
Suddenly his wife faints in the other room and the General and his wife decide to leave. "Enough playacting" he tells her. "Learn to hide your feelings as well as you lie." Before they leave she talks to Donati and finally tells him the truth; but he doesn't know if he can believe her anymore saying, "I am no longer with you Louise."
The next evening the General informs Louise that the earrings she so now desperately loves no longer belong to her. Later the next day he takes her to her niece's during a wedding party and forces her to give the earrings to her niece as a wedding gift. Louise is heartbroken when doing this and he tells her that she brought this unhappiness upon herself.
Eventually the General's niece later is forced to sell the earrings back to Monsieur Remy to pay off her husbands debts, and since the General already bought them from him several times before; he asks him if he wants to buy them once again. The General gets infuriated and yells, "Don't bother me with those infernal earrings!"
When Louise finds out Monsieur Remy has the earrings again she stops by his store and offers to now sell all of her possessions to get those earrings back; but not to wear them...but to hide them. When her husband notices all her jewelery missing she tells him she sold them to purchase back the earrings because the earrings that Donati had given her are more important than anything her husband has ever given her. Believing Donati is what started all these problems he angrily confronts Donati and challenges him to a duel.
Louise is scared for Donati's life knowing her husband is an excellent shooter and tries to talk Donati out of dueling him because it's suicide; but it's no use. She tells him, "I'm incorrigible. A frivolous liar. The woman I've become suffers because of the woman I was." Before the duel Louise goes to the church that she visited in the beginning of the film and says a prayer for him. "Save him, dear saint. You know that we were guilty in thought only. And what are thoughts? Will you save him, my dear saint? I thank you in advance. Blessed be your name in heaven as on earth. Amen."
Louise tries to get to the duel before it happens running up on a faraway hill to watch it. A gun shot is heard, and she asks "Why wasn't there a second shot?," as she collapses and dies on the hill. The last shot in the film are the earrings that she left as an offering for the church with a note saying: "Gift of Madame De..."
For those of us who rank The Earrings of Madame de . . . at the top of our list of all-time favorite films, the mystery is why our passion isn’t universally shared. Every year, thanks to committed revival houses, new members are recruited to our cult, but Ophuls’s masterpiece never seems to attain the universal accolade of “greatness,” automatically granted to movies like The Godfather or Citizen Kane. To most people, “great” means “big,” inescapably masculine and bold, and probably Important with a capital I.
This in turn implies an effort with a socially redeeming political or quasi-political ambition, a dissection (and, often covertly, a celebration) of the ways of powerful men. Is Ophuls often left off of those lists because the German-born director and man of the world made films about women, and in the case of The Earrings of Madame de . . . , a period film about an upper-class woman whose cushioned existence is light-years away from that of the ordinary people of contemporary cinema and the toilers in the margins of life? The “woman’s film” label shouldn’t be a handicap in this day and age, as it was in the early sixties, when Richard Roud defended Ophuls with faint praise in a monograph: “What are Ophuls’s subjects? The simplest answer is: women. More specifically, women in love. Most often, women who are unhappily in love, or to whom love brings misfortune of one kind or another.” Ophuls’s star rose during the cultural revolution of the late sixties and early seventies, when auteurist and feminist critics elevated the “woman’s film” along with such culturally underrated genres as the gangster film and the western. Yet even in this reappraisal, the “guy films” got more respect.
In my own appreciation at the time, I called the Ophulsian heroines by Stendhal’s epithet, the “militarists of love.” They are the adventurers, the risk takers, like the Stendhal heroines celebrated by Simone de Beauvoir: “The so-called serious man is really futile, because he accepts ready-made justifications for his life; whereas a passionate and profound woman revises established values from moment to moment. She knows the constant tension of unsupported freedom; it puts her in constant danger; she can win or lose all in an instant. It is the anxious assumption of this risk that gives her story the colors of a heroic adventure. And the stakes are the highest there are: the very meaning of existence.”
Thanks to the cataclysm of love that descends on her, Danielle Darrieux’s Madame de becomes the “passionate and profound woman,” but Ophuls doesn’t accept the “serious” man, with his “ready-made justifications,” at face value. Ophuls’s men are as important as his women. One of the movie’s great epiphanies is the lifting of the veil of convention and self-defense to reveal the heart of the military man and husband played by Charles Boyer. Even Ophuls’s Hollywood films, which hew more closely to the conventions of genre, go far beyond the formulaic (and soothing) pattern in which the suffering female is front and center, with men serving as appendages and spear carriers (generally relegated to one of two types, the swine who abuses the heroine, the patsy who comforts her). Memorable in their own right are such male leads as Robert Ryan and James Mason in Caught (1949), Mason the same year in The Reckless Moment, and even Louis Jourdan in 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. In the Ophulsian universe, men and women occupy separate but equal spheres, and if the men have more power and agency in the world, the women are the conquistadors in the more important realm of the heart.
The Earrings of Madame de . . . , beginning in the lilting superficiality of a frivolous woman looking to pawn her jewels and ending in death and the ironic sanctification of those jewels, is Ophuls at his bleakest and most beautiful. The very opulence and swirl of the world from which Madame de is ostracizing herself—the opera, the gowns, the balls, the jewels, the servants—will be stripped away as love burns through the outer layers of life. A woman is rescued from shallowness and inauthenticity, but at what a price!
If, like the works of the writers and composers he admired—Schnitzler, Stendhal, Mozart—his films are given over to the contemplation of love in all its permutations, love as the crowning glory of human sentiment, Ophuls is nevertheless the least sentimental of directors. A harsh streak of irony, of fate closing in like a noose, underlies his vision, a sense not just of the delights but of the penalties of desire. Regret, a nostalgia for lost innocence, and mutability are the recurrent themes. “Life is . . . so terribly short,” says a character in La ronde (1950).
For Ophuls it certainly was. Born Maximilian Oppenheimer in Germany in 1902, he died there in 1957, after the very public failure in Paris of Lola Montès (1955). As a young man, he went into the theater, acting first—without great success—then directing. The surname Ophuls, taken to spare his family from the embarrassment of his chosen métier, was, depending on which version you believe, either a capricious stab at aristocratic forebears or a director friend’s whimsical choice in memory of a once beloved Danish actress of that name. Films followed the theater, and Ophuls wound up directing movies in Germany, Italy, France, and the United States. He brought to his American films an elegant cosmopolitanism and his own feeling for the nuances of male-female relationships, but it was in France, his favorite country and the setting for his greatest films, that his spirit took root.
“He gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of cinema,” wrote critic Andrew Sarris, an early champion. Ophuls was so famous for his fluid cinematography that James Mason wrote an affectionate poem beginning, “A shot that does not call for tracks is agony for poor old Max.” But the roving camera and the visual glissandos were never virtuoso flourishes for their own sake; instead they were always attached to the movement of characters and revelatory of the movements of their souls.
Shakespeare’s Rosalind utters the famous line, “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” But in Ophuls’s films people do die for love. There are duels and there are suicides and near suicides, and even when characters don’t die for love, love dies. In one of the three Guy de Maupassant–derived stories of Ophuls’s Le plaisir (1952), the rejected model jumps out of a window and winds up in a wheelchair. The artist, now forcibly married to her, and with plenty of time to work, voices the bitter aphorism, “There’s no joy in happiness.”
Change is the principle of life—without it there is no life—but change itself is a kind of death. The fearless cross the line, transgress the rules, but at their peril. Shopgirls and society women, parlor maids and prostitutes, and the men who variously scorn, love, and try to own them, all are in danger of suddenly finding themselves outside the well-worn tracks of class and caste. These are the conventions by which they have lived, and by which flirtation and desire have been contained, and without them they drop into a terrifying and exhilarating void where they may be reborn but also crushed.
Ophuls gravitated to the writing of Schnitzler and his fin de siècle Vienna—the clash of worldliness and innocence, the unshocked view of philandering—but he injects into it deeper feelings of love and tenderness, turning Schnitzler’s brittle world of unbridgeable class differences into settings where passion can dissolve boundaries. In Liebelei (1932), the simple working-class girl falls in love with a dashingly handsome ladies’ man and officer, but he falls in love with her too. Hearing of his death in a duel, the girl throws herself out of a window and dies. Earlier, on a moonlit carriage ride through a snow-covered cemetery, the lovers try to stop time, but time can’t be stopped. In La ronde, possibly his most charming and melodious examination of love, Ophuls adds a narrator (Anton Walbrook) to stand in as surrogate for the viewer, to introduce and intervene (at one point even acting as censor, snipping an X-rated scene from a strip of celluloid). Though each set of lovers in La ronde’s dominolike chain of seduction (prostitute meets soldier, soldier seduces maid, maid has a crush on the young gentleman, who in turn falls passionately for the married woman, and so on) is charming and unique, the relentless rotation of the carousel conveys something impersonal and interchangeable, an uncannily modern vision of men and women “hooking up” across class lines. In a conclusion not in the play, Simone Signoret’s hands reflexively go to her neck when the count leans over her, a gesture of self-protection against the strangulation that every prostitute fears. Although some reviewers criticized Ophuls for softening Schnitzler’s hard edges, the tremor of shock in that moment opens the window on a reality that is both harsher and more compassionate than Schnitzler’s, more tender and less cynical.
Ophuls understands that while plays can keep their Brechtian distance, movies need an emotional pull. He provided this with his extraordinary casts, actors so supple and smooth it was as if they’d been working together for years. The ensemble of La ronde: Signoret, Walbrook, Gérard Philipe, Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Darrieux, Daniel Gélin, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Isa Miranda. (The lack of this kind of cast is no doubt one of the reasons that Ophuls’s controversial last film, Lola Montès, a feast of widescreen visual and amorous delights, with the wooden Martine Carol as the famous showgirl-courtesan on display, was booed when it premiered in Paris and has tested the patience of buffs and general audiences ever since.) Of course, the heartbreaking trio of The Earrings of Madame de . . .—Darrieux, Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica—are beyond perfection. As, respectively, Madame de, her military husband, the count, and Baron Donati, the ambassador, they come to embody a double past, the period of the film they inhabit and the glorious past of cinema itself—a romantic cinema now shot through with gloomy foreboding.
The source of The Earrings of Madame de . . . is a 1951 novel by Louise de Vilmorin simply called Madame de, an elliptical tale of a society lady who, in pawning the earrings given her by her husband, sets off a chain of circumstances that, when she falls desperately in love, tightens around her and destroys her. It’s a minor work of social portraiture, leaning heavily on coincidence and irony. The screenplay, by Ophuls, Marcel Achard, and Annette Wademant, is richer. Amplifying the story almost beyond recognition, it’s a masterwork of succinct exposition and expressive dialogue, phrases reiterated but with different meanings.
The woman we see at the beginning of The Earrings of Madame de . . .—or rather the hand, the skirt, eventually the reflection in a mirror—is, like Lola Montès, imprisoned in her own self-display, a charming narcissist, who hums as her hand skims restlessly over the surface of her jewels, a cross, furs, looking for something to pawn, alighting as she considers first the earrings (a wedding gift from her husband), the gold cross, her furs (“I’m too fond of them”); she wishes her mother were alive to tell her what to do. A Bible falls from among her furs, and she picks it up (“I need that more than ever”). Almost every action in the first half of the film will have its double in the second half, where its opposite meaning will be expressed.
The decision to pawn the earrings, which in itself tells us how little she values her husband, and the cover-up between the count and the jeweler set in motion a fateful journey—for the earrings, for the three main characters. As the artifacts fall into different hands (from the count to his parting mistress, from a pawnbroker in Constantinople to the baron, from the baron back to Madame de), they acquire radically different and deeper meanings. It looks, at first, like one of those charming daisy chains of seduction and happenstance, like the encounters in La ronde, until her passion for the breathtakingly handsome baron plunges Madame de into a vortex for which her shallow existence provides no frame of reference.
In the film’s famous collage-like ballroom scene, in which Madame de and her newest “suitor,” Donati, waltz in one continuous motion across the weeks and into the depths of love, the phrase “The news is excellent” occurs as a leitmotif between the two dancers. It is uttered by Madame de, first seriously, then ironically, in reply to Donati’s inquiry about her absent husband’s health, and indicates both the passage of time and the growth of intimacy. The last time it is used in the film, it is Boyer who echoes the phrase, reassuring his wife that Donati is well after his fall from a horse. “I know,” she replies, using the words Donati had used in their last exchange.
This fall from a horse, and more importantly her fainting from fear as she watches, is itself a symbolic marker in the progression of unruly passion. Madame de is known for her little fainting spells; no one takes them seriously, and like her flirtations with men (dying of hope, as her husband rather proudly describes them), they are seen as one of her charms. She is the star of her little world, and when Donati first arrives in Paris, hostesses everywhere seat them together, predicting with a kind of fatuous sophistication that they are “made for each other.” Society, like a movie audience, worships its stars, is fascinated by new and exciting pairings, but the couple is popular only as long as they play their assigned roles. They titillate but shouldn’t challenge or destroy existing rules. So when Madame de loses consciousness for a half minute longer than usual, scandal ensues. She has not only fallen in love—already bad form—but compromised her own and her husband’s honor. Seemingly at the pinnacle of her society, she is, in Tolstoyan fashion, least free, the generalissima whose fate is determined by the rules and decisions, the habits and patterns of a thousand below her in the hierarchy. Ophuls’s complex pattern of camera movements—rapturous, lyrical pans and tracks and occasional sudden swings, within a larger, strictly observed symmetrical system—reflects the paradox of Madame de’s social situation and, on a larger scale, the mystery of free will and determinism.
If she enacts the primal conflict of tragedy, the individual against society, in one sense she has been outside society all along. The spoiled and petted child-woman of the beginning of the film is no more in touch with reality than the mystically redeemed saint at the end. And when, in her passion for the baron—loving him, then losing him—she turns her back on society, it is not just its luxuries and ornaments she rejects but its premises: her role as wife and mother. This is clear in the scene in which the count takes her to the country house, teeming with the children of his poor relations, and forces her to make a gift of the earrings to a niece who has just given birth. Madame de tosses the earrings to the young woman and, in a touchingly humorous gesture, hastens to the crib, where she makes a pretense of admiring the baby to hide her grief—the baby arouses no more feeling in her than a bird or an insect, the product of a cycle of nature in which she wants no part.
Oscar Straus’s lovely score adjusts itself, without breaking stride, from the rapturous lilt of the waltz to the wistful and finally desolate strains of loss. Along with the music, the landscape becomes more spartan. The ripe little beauty from the early part of the film becomes physically wasted. In her last agonizing and comical encounter with De Sica, she has rushed to warn him about the duel, knowing he no longer loves her, but still daring to hope. “I’m not even pretty anymore,” she says sadly. “You’re prettier than ever,” he replies. “Really?” Her eyes light up, with a coquetry that shows how much she is still herself. Then as quickly, “I’m incorrigible,” she confesses, with an awareness that shows just how far she has come. And it also measures just how far Darrieux has come, from a doll-like ingenue in her early films to an actress capable of giving this complex performance; she’s searing, ruthless, and yes, more beautiful than ever.
Yet even as we sympathize with her, we take in Boyer’s barely spoken agony as the count. This military man, so used to hiding his feelings and having control, urges his inconsolable wife back to health with a desperate cheer, his wit, his concern, his love—all lost on her. Their divided bedroom, in which they call to each other from separate spaces—cavernous but luxurious—beautifully renders the nature of their marriage, the way they have forced each other into formal roles now only tragedy can shatter.
He has been suave in the crisis, smoothing the way after each of his wife’s faux pas, tending to her in her distress, patient with her self-indulgences, officially gallant and wry about her many suitors. But in a sudden, piercing revelation—“I’m not particularly fond of the person you’ve made me out to be”—we see into the heart of a marriage that is better than she will ever understand, or in the count’s immortal words, “only superficially superficial."
Even as Madame de is ennobled by her love, she retains some of the myopia and weakness of her former self. The brutal lesson of her suffering teaches her nothing of the misery her husband endures loving her, and brings only the slightest understanding of the blows to integrity and the count’s love her “little lies” have dealt. The gallant baron’s humiliation and the mute agony in Donati’s deep brown eyes: these are the great soul spectacles of The Earrings of Madame de . . . , the final resting place to which the swirling, restless camera of Ophuls’s masterpiece has inevitably led us.
The Earrings of Madame de was adapted from Louise Leveque de Vilmorin's period novel by Ophuls, Marcel Archard and Annette Wadement.In Ophuls' original treatment for the film, every scene was to be shot through mirrors on walls and other locations. His producers rejected the idea. After his experience of shooting La Ronde, Ophuls was determined to stay on budget and on schedule for this film and made extensive preparations during pre-production. He ended up finishing the film ahead of schedule and under budget. He worked closely with art director Georges Annekov to create the right atmosphere for the film, and had Annekov design prop earrings that were appropriate. The prop earrings were on display at the Franco-London-Film production studios for many years. The film's script became considerably different from de Vilmorin's short novel and Ophuls stated that "besides the earrings, there's very little of the novel left in the film...just the senselessness of that woman's life." Ophuls would speak privately with Daniell Darrieux between takes throughout the shooting and told her to portray the emptiness of her character. At first Ophuls was too embarrassed to give direction to Vittorio De Sica out of respect for De Sica's work as a director, but the two became friends during the film's production. Darrieux, Charles Boyer and Annekov had all worked together in 1936 on the film Mayerling, which was Darrieux's first leading role
Director Max Ophuls was a German who made films in Germany, Hollywood and in France. Critic Andrew Harris used Max Ophuls as one of the major artists who defined his use of the auteur theory. Sarris famously advised moviegoers to value the 'how of' a movie more than 'the what', as its story and message are not as important then its style and artistry. Ophuls was an extraordinary example because the director was obsessed with visual style, and elaborate camera movements. He was dismissed by many as nothing more than a fancy stylist, and it took Sarris along with the French auteurists to finally show what a brilliant master he was in his craft. Max Ophuls has been known with all his works to feature his distinctive smooth camera movements, complex tracking shots, dolly sweeps and crane shots which influenced the work of directors Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Ophuls created several amazing films using his fluid camera techniques, and smooth dolly shots. His American made films were Letter from an Unknown Woman starring Joan Fontaine; which is about a pianist who is about to flee from a duel and receives a letter from a woman he cannot remember whom may hold the key to his downfall. Then there is The Reckless Moment which is a film-noir about a mother discovering a dead body and trying to hide the body under the assumption that it was her daughter who killed the man. Le Plaisir tells three different stories about the theme of pleasure and Love, and it is also known for several of Ophuls aesthetic's with the camera. Ophuls ended it with his colorful swan song Lola Montes which he filmed back in his French homeland which tells the tragic story of a great adventurer who becomes the main attraction of a circus after being the lover of various important European men.
In the beginning The Earrings of Madame de, Louise's decision to pawn her husband's wedding earrings to the jeweler, tells us how much she truly values her husband and the marriage that they have together. When the jewerler tells the husband that his wife had sold the earrings to him, and fabricated a whole story on losing them, he casually buys them back from the jeweler and simply decides to give the earrings as a farewell gift for his mistress, all the while letting his wife go on with her fabricated lie knowing is a falsehood. Of course his mistress sells the earrings to finance her obsessive gambling habits and they eventually arrive in the hands of the the Baron Donati. In his travels he encounters the Countess Louisa, falls in love, courts her, and eventually gives her the earrings. She is startled to see the earrings come back to her again, but is delighted to have them back, now knowing she can proudly wear them from someone that she highly values. Her silly explanation to the General on how the lost earrings suddenly reappeared is quite humorous, with him astonished and confused on how exactly she could have gotten them back.
Eventually all these tissue of lies and deceptions unravels, while the earrings are sold and bought again two more times later in the film. Watching the comings and goings of the earrings throughout the story is always a highly amusing experience which is in many ways the stuff of farce, especially the moments in which the jeweler turns up in the General's office again with the earrings for "their usual business transaction." When looking deeper within its story, you come to the discover that Louisa and the General live a life that is a complete facade of themselves and who they represent. They never have loved one another, and I doubt they never had earlier in life. They both are clearly comfortable in selling and giving away valuable wedding gifts, and are even more comfortable lying about it. Their divided bedroom where the two casually sleep in separate beds and call to out each other from separate spaces of the room is another clear flag that they have an unhappy marriage and only pretend to truly care for one another when presented out in public. This unnatural facade and being forced into these respected formal roles is clearly unhealthy and unnatural, which unsurprisingly will end tragically for them.
Louise and her husband live in a society where infidelities are probably more or less expected and accepted, and if they do not know the specifics of who their spouse is having an affair with, they have a general idea. And yet there is still a code in such affairs, and the code permits sex, but not love. When love gets into the picture that upsets the establishment, and causes frictions between both parties. Clearly you can lie to one another, and secretly have sexual affairs with another human being, but once love is brought into the picture, that's where things can get problematic. What is fascinating in Earrings of Madame de is the way the value of the earrings changes in relationship to their meaning. At the start of the film Louisa didn't look at them of any importance because the man that the earrings signified wasn't of any importance to her. But once they become a gift from her lover, they suddenly become priceless and invaluable. The General feels the need to want to buy them back twice during the story, but when coming to learn how invaluable they are to his wife, he becomes reduced to being sick of those earrings and want nothing more to do with them. It's an expensive item, which is clearly there to symbolize love, but when it truly does represent it, it suddenly becomes an annoyange and unfortunately even a danger to even possess it. When Louise comes to the realization that she might lose the man she loves, she is determined to get those earrings, so determined in fact that she is willing to give up all her possessions, which were the possessions we were shown in the beautiful opening of the film, possessions that she earlier stated she could never part from.
Film critic Roger Ebert stated, "The way Ophul's presents his characters falling in love is masterful and quite magical. He loves to present his characters surrounded by their milieu, with the interior spaces crowded with possessions and its bodies adorned with gowns, uniforms, jewelry, and decorations. " In one of the most beautifully staged shots in the film, Ophuls presents a montage of several nights dancing out on the ballroom, all the while the changing of costumes and settings indicate different time transitions, while the dance movements and the music continues without any interruptions or unbroken moments; which indicates to the audience the two lovers long and emotional affair. On the last night it finally ends with the circling couple gradually left all alone on the dance floor, while one by one each orchestra member packs up and goes home, and a servant girl extinguishes the candles, and a black drop-cloth is thrown over the harp, while the camera moves in until the screen is black and the dance is finally over. The brilliant use of storytelling all told through a dance resembles the famous montage in Orson Welles Citizen Kane, in which a marriage slowly deteriorates through a series of breakfasts between husband and wife.
The Earrings of Madame is Ophuls most dazzling film, because of its story of love and loss and what is truly important which goes beyond the simple materialistic superficialities that many believe fulfill our needs for happiness. The small web of lies Louise started out with from the beginning of the story all come crashing down around her towards the end, which sadly all revolve around a pair of earrings. Andrew Sarris once called The Earrings of Madame "the most perfect film ever made," and Derek Malcolm called it "a supreme piece of film-making which hardly puts a foot wrong for 2 hours...a magnificent and utterly timeless dissection of passion and affection, the game of life and love itself." I notice a lot of scenes repeat themselves throughout The Earrings of Madame de, for instance; the General taking his mistress to the train station to wish her goodbye and later taking Louise to the train station when she goes away on her trip. Louise going to the church to make a prayer before selling her earrings in the beginning of the film; and in the end, going there to make a prayer for Donati's life. This repeats that occur in the story reflect the earrings being repeatedly sold and bought back from Monsieur Remy and the theme of fate and coincidence with the multiple times Louise and Donati randomly run into each, the first time at the train station in Basel (with Donati only noticing Louise) and the second time is when their horse carriages crash into one another. And of course with Louise repeating over and over, "I don't love you," too a man she truly does love. This film has several powerful themes, whether its living in a loveless marriage or believing materialistic items are what can make a person content. Most people love materialistic things whether it's money, jewelry, or gold. Material things always fill a certain void that people seem to be missing within themselves but it can only satisfy so much. The Earrings of Madame shows that as happy as Louise was with all her possessions, she never was 'truly' happy. She finally found true happiness through another human being; which goes to show that all humans need one another. We all want to love and be loved; it's just such a rare case to actually find it and even rarer to make it last. My favorite theme in the film is that this originally vain spoiled woman who originally wouldn't dare sell any of her so-called possessions for any type of man, will in the end be willing to sell it all for true love. But of course with most great stories the characters finally realize what's truly important when it's too late and now the love of her life's life is on the line, because of all her lies which have now exploded in her face, and her love will unfortunately face the consequences. Ophuls said that the story's construction attracted him to the project, stating "there is always the same axis around which the action continually turns like a carousel. A tiny, scarcely visible axis: a pair of earrings." Sadly in this film no character is truly to blame. The General had affairs and participated in a facade of a happy marriage, the wife had an affair and also told lie after lie, and the duke Donati knowingly got involved with a married woman; but in the end it was the earrings and what their significance meant to each particular player that really undid them all. This is one of Ophuls most beautiful and exquisite works as we watch in admiration the visual display of elegance which is so beautifully fluid and intricate throughout its story. And then to our surprise we find ourselves caring for these character's, and we come to understand what its like to have an empty heart, to gain one, and to have it destroyed once again.