The Earrings of Madame de…

For an exquisitely conceived and executed movie, take a look at Max Ophüls’ 1953 film “The Earrings of Madame de…”  Ophüls casts the lovely Danielle Darrieux as a flirtatious woman of high class named Louise who gets involved in an affair with an Italian diplomat named Baron Donati, played by Vittorio De Sica.  Madame de’s husband, Andre, played by Charles Boyer, suspects an affair but maintains a classy attitude towards his wife and the Baron.  The diamond earrings, which Louise sells at the beginning, continually circulate among the three principals, as they are bought and sold numerous times.

Madame de... (Danielle Darrieux) tries on her earrings.

Madame de… (Danielle Darrieux) tries on her earrings.

The story takes place in the middle of the 19th century, when members of high society took great pains to avoid scandals.  Aware of this, Andre, a general in the army, shows incredible restraint as his wife continuously tries his patience with her lies and schemes.  She feels trapped in a loveless marriage, and the Baron’s obsession doesn’t wane despite his close association to the General.

The film begins with Madame de (Darrieux) making the decision to sell her earrings to pay off her debts. The camera flits around her bedroom for a while before finally focussing on the magnificent jewelry mentioned in the movie’s title, with the viewer wondering how such inanimate objects could provide a plot for this movie masterpiece. Madame de sells them to a jeweler and later at the opera tells the General (Boyer) that she’s lost them (after a lot of contrived histrionics). Then the jeweler contacts the General and offers to sell them back to him; he agrees to buy them but does not tell his wife. Eventually, the earrings come into the possession of an Italian baron, Donati (De Sica), who later meets the General’s wife and falls in love with her. Complicating matters even further, the General knows Donati quite well and considers him a good friend. The General shows tremendous restraint; he doesn’t jump to conclusions about his wife and his friend, but his eventual discoveries provide a satisfactory denouement in this film of subtlety and deceit.

The deft camerawork gives the film a profound intimacy, while the outstanding performances by Boyer, Darrieux and De Sica keep us continually moved.  Ophuls does an outstanding job of keeping the principals up front, including the earrings, which display prominently and seem to gain power as the movie goes on. The journey the earrings take provides a profound lesson, and the ending implies the journey will continue with a new set of characters.

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