THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE...
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Charles Boyer,
Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio de Sica
Director: Max Ophuls
Audio: Dolby Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 100 Minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2008
“Unhappiness is an invented thing.”
Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de… is a mannered tale of society, traditions and customs, but told with a surprising amount of heart and irony. It demonstrates the frailty and illogic of the human heart by showing how a simple inanimate object can go from utterly meaningless to almost literally being the pearl of great price described in the Bible, and how one would give almost anything to acquire it.
The film opens in Paris on the first of many impressive tracking shots, following the point of view of Louise (Darrieux), the “Madame de” of the title, whose full name is never quite known. She has a debt of 20,000 francs. We don’t know why, but we follow as she searches through her gauche collection of furs and baubles for something to sell.
She comes across a pair of diamond earrings given to her by her husband (Boyer), a general, on their wedding day. Their marriage is a polite and passionless affair, and we get the sense it was more about security and status for Louise than love. She doesn’t like the earrings or what they represent. She sells them to the merchant that originally sold them to her husband, and pretends for the general that she lost them.
But he knows the truth…the merchant lets the general know of the transaction, and the general buys back the earrings as a going away present for his mistress. When the mistress has to sell them in Constantinople to feed her gambling addiction, they end up in the hands of the Baron Donati (de Sica), who returns to Paris just in time to catch a glimpse of Louise in customs.
Soon after, they meet by accident, and it becomes clear that fate is dealing them a hand. They fall in love, and the Baron romances Louise in a series of dances expertly cut together to show both the passage of time and their increasing affection. The Baron makes Louise a present of the earrings. She recognizes them, but cannot say why. But now that they are a gift from a true love, she cherishes them.
The general, of course, knows that Louise didn’t just “find” the earrings, and figures out what is going on. His confrontation with the Baron is so well-mannered as to be almost sad, as is what he forces Louise to do with her new old treasure.
The baron speaks the line quoted above about us creating our own unhappiness. I tend to think instead of what George Burns said while playing God: “If I take sad away, happy has to go with it.” Maybe at it’s heart, The Earrings of Madame de… is about a woman content to feel neither, and the price she had to pay for knowing real happiness was knowing real tragedy as well.
One can sense that Ophuls’ film about love outside the bounds of polite society was a grandfather to other works, such as Wong Kar-Wei’s In the Mood for Love, Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, or even Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County. They all owe something to Ophuls’ mastery at lulling us in with beauty only to find stories that reach for our hearts while our eyes are occupied.
The cast is remarkable, from Boyer’s perfect pitch as the practical general who may end up learning something about his own heart in the end, to de Sica, who of course was no slouch behind the camera himself. But it’s the radiant Ms. Darrieux who commands the film with her beauty and her vulnerability as the title character.
Yet Max Ophuls remains the true star. The Earrings of Madame de… is a masterpiece of style and technique being used to anchor and deliver emotional impact. It’s no wonder both film and filmmaker remain influential in modern cinema.
Criterion scores again with an exemplary new transfer of a classic black and white film. This presentation is strikingly clean; there’s not much in the way of scratches or debris to really date the movie. The contrast between dark and light shades is quite striking, as is the level of detail and subtleties of grayscale in between.
The original mono is perfectly serviceable; it doesn’t require or offer a lot of dynamic range, but the spoken words seem well-balanced against the music and other occasional effects.
The extras start with an informative new commentary track by scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar, plus an introduction from director Paul Thomas Anderson that plays out like a 13 minute or so selected scene commentary. There are interviews with Ophuls’ collaborators Alain Jessua, Marc Frederix and Annette Wademant, an interview with novelist Louise de Vilmorin, and a nice Criterion booklet containing essays, excerpts, and Vilmorin’s original source novel.
Criterion has once again delivered an outstanding treat for cinema fans. The Earrings of Madame de… is an important and highly influential film that got a first class transfer treatment and a bountiful supply of extras to go with it.