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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

* * * *

Director: Max Ophuls
Starring: Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica

The Earrings of Madame de... has been on my list of movies to see for a very long time and, fortunately, it did not disappoint. Max Opuls's beautiful looking and beautifully crafted film is most certainly worthy of being called a masterpiece - it's the kind of movie people mean when they say that they don't make 'em like they used to.

The film takes place towards the end of the 19th century and concerns the romantic escapades of a trio of aristocrats and the social rituals that both protect them and tear them apart. At the center of the story is Louise, the Comtesse de... (Danielle Darrieux) who is comfortably and amiably married to General Andre de... (Charles Boyer). They have what I suppose could be called an open marriage, with the General remarking at one point that he finds her suitors irritating - though it's never entirely clear whether he believes she's sexually involved with other men or whether he believes it's nothing more than flirting.

The plot is constructed around a pair of earrings which the General gave to his wife as a wedding gift. In the film's opening moments she sells the earrings in order to cover some gambling debts and then lies that she's lost them. The General knows that this is a lie because the jeweller to whom she sold them turned around and sold them back to the General, but he allows her to believe her deception has worked and then gives the earrings to his mistress as a parting gift. The mistress, like the wife, has a gambling problem and eventually looses the earrings and they later fall into the possession of the Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica). The Baron briefly encounters the Countess while travelling and is smitten and then meets her again in Paris, where they embark on an affair. He makes a gift to her of the earrings and she explains their reappearance to her husband by pretending to have found them in a pair of gloves but, of course, the General knows she never lost the earrings in the first place and his realization that she's actually in love with the Baron brings everything to a head.

The story is obviously highly contrived but the film itself is so charming that that's easy to forgive. There is a strong comedic thread running through it surrounding the frequent reappearances of the earrings - the General buys them three times and when they become available for sale a forth time, the jeweller calls upon the General for their "usual business" - but for the most part it's a solid romantic drama. Ophuls expresses the evolution of the Countess' affair with the Baron through a sequence where they dance together at several balls. It's a great sequence because it seems unbroken - they dance and whenever they disappear behind a pillar, they come out in different costumes and their dialogue indicates the passage of time. It's an elegant and efficient way to establish their relationship and move on to the meat of the story, which is the fallout from the affair.

The General isn't so much concerned about the fact of the affair as long as it's discrete but once the earrings reappear, he can't pretend not to know about it. He explains the situation to the Baron, who agrees that the affair must end, but the damage is done: the Countess is in love and can never go back to the way of life she was living before. The Baron and the General are playing by the rules, but the rules can no longer contain the Countess, leading to despair. The film gets increasingly melodramatic as it approaches its conclusion, but it builds up to that point in a way that feels natural and which makes sense. It helps of course that there are such solid actors helping to bring it to that point, and Darrieux in particular shines both in the lighter and more dramatic scenes.

The Earrings of Madame de... is a really great film, beautifully made in both a technical and an artistic sense. It has held up extremely well over the past fifty plus years and remains very engaging and entertaining. I can't wait to watch it again.


Philip Concannon said...

Great review. You've expressed so much of what I love about this film. Ophuls' direction is so witty and elegant, and that dance sequence you highlight is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. Have you seen the rest of Ophuls' films? La Ronde makes a wonderful use of his gliding camerawork while Letter From an Unknown Woman is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Norma Desmond said...

I haven't seen any of his other work, but I'll definitely be seeking it out after seeing this one.