The Earrings of Madame De… begins with a long tracking shot of the Madame’s closet, where she hems and haws over what to pawn off. Eventually, she can’t bear to give up a single outfit and elects to sell her diamond earrings, a personal heirloom. The opening scene’s purpose is two-fold; it establishes the protagonist’s vanity (which is bountiful throughout) and introduces us to director Max Ophuls’ sweeping visual style. By setting such an elegant tone, Ophuls has already snagged our attention and refuses to relinquish his stronghold on it throughout the picture. The plot is engaging enough—there are plenty of twists and interesting characters—but the visuals are responsible for much of the movie’s effectiveness. Ophuls’ graceful style, so lovely in La Ronde, is even better here. The tracking shots effortlessly glide down corridors, into rooms, through gardens. They particularly shine during two dancing scenes, where the smooth movements of the partners are echoed by the graceful camera capturing every move in perfect sync.
The storyline, occasionally tricky to follow, spins a compelling web nonetheless. After selling the earrings (something she certainly didn’t have to do, as her husband could have easily gotten her out of debt), Madame De…(Danielle Darrieux) and the earrings embark on twin whirlwind journeys. The earrings pass to a woman who’s a compulsive gambler—she eventually sells them to feed her addiction. They wind up in the hands of a Baron (Vittorio De Sica), who later coincidentally meet Madame De…, falls for her, and presents her the earrings as a gift. Completely in shock, she accepts them and is forced to fabricate a story for her husband, General Andres (Charles Boyer), for she had fibbed that they’d been lost at the theater. The love triangle deepens and darkens, leading to a climactic duel in the wilderness which proves to be too much for the Madame’s remorseful heart to bear. Madame De…’s full name is never given, reflective of her indecision about taking an identity. Though she never appears to dislike her husband, there aren’t any vibes of love present either. Ophüls is careful to show their separate beds, and how Andres normally initiates the physical contact. In contrast, Madame De… is far more affectionate with the Baron, but her pompous heart appears unwilling to fully give herself to one man. Her name, like her persona, is open to finding something better. Conflict is a major theme in The Earrings of Madame De…, and like his earlier La Ronde, Ophüls makes sure to explore it deeply and subtly.
The acting is superb. De Sica, the great Italian director responsible for such masterpieces as Umberto D and The Bicycle Thief, is stately and appropriately subtle as the Baron. Boyer brings pride to the role of the General, while the arrogant Darrieux might be the best of all. All three lead performances are marked by exquisite restraint. There are practically no raised voices during the film, despite the infidelity and corruption that are omnipresent throughout. It’s unfortunate that there’s not a good print of The Earrings of Madame De… currently available. The VHS copy in circulation is pan-and-scan with sketchy subtitles. Luckily, there are rumors afloat about Criterion picking this one up [2009 edit: yay!]. One can only hope: The Earrings of Madame De… most certainly deserves such royal treatment. Even on a mediocre tape, the film’s beauty surges through.