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In the Paris of the late 19th century, Louise, wife of a general, sells the earrings her husband gave her as a wedding gift: she needs money to cover her debts. The general secretly buys the earrings again and gives them to his mistress, Lola, leaving to go to Constantinople. Where an Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, buys them. Back to Paris, Donati meets Louise... So now Louise discovers love and becomes much less frivolous. Written by
a rarity: a beautiful, romantic film about the lack of romance in people's lives, of possessiveness, and the collapse of humility
Call me a pessimist, but the ending of Madame De doesn't spell too much in the way of happiness for any of the characters, even if what one might think as the worst possible scenario didn't happen. Max Ophuls, with his brilliant film The Earrings of Madame De, doesn't allow the usual catharsis that one might expect from a romantic drama of this sort, where infidelity is merely implied and the veneer of early 20th century bourgeois is a cover for a feelings that rarely get in view. Instead, as with the rest of the film, we're given something of a wonderful contradiction, where something is compelling and graceful, but in a sort of dark way too. The doomed love of the film is one where the simple act of admitting love is a tough thing to do, and at the same time this doom is contrasted by a very swift, effortlessly moving camera, which goes around its characters trying to get us completely immersed in this world while feeling at the same time something isn't quite right. Why shouldn't Louise get what she really would want? Well, then the movie would be over pretty quickly.
Instead Ophuls makes Madame De (Danielle Darrieux) a character who goes through a radical transformation: she starts off being careless with how she possesses things, her objects, as she goes randomly in a 'whatever' mode at the start through her possessions, getting ready to go out in the town. She sells off her precious earrings, given as a wedding present, just because, not for any really serious reason. This leads to an amusing trail of sort of a mini-movie, where we see the trail of the earrings: she puts up her cover-story that she lost the earrings while at a show, and despite all ill-fated efforts they can't be found. But, the original seller notifies the Général André de (Charles Boyer, the perfect presence for this role), and he decides to not tell his wife he found them, and instead passes them off to his mistress, who is leaving him to Constantinople. Cut to after she loses them in a gambling frenzy, and it winds up at a pawn shop, and soon after in Baron Donati's hands (Vittorio De Sica, handsome as ever, and with some depth to his soul too). Donati, of course, soon ends up in the life of Madame De at first as a simple diplomat, and then dancing with her every night, and then finally the two barely can stand being away from one another. And what about the earrings?
The love-triangle, of what is there and what isn't for the three of them, is made all the more exceptional here due to two major things really: the performances being as precise to a certain style that Ophuls is after, where there is a total understanding to what is going on but a serious attitude to what the characters are going through, and Ophuls as the director. For the latter, let it be said that this is arguably one of the best directed films not only of the 50s but to come out of France in general. Ophuls puts so many small touches in his pacing and timing of scenes, of how he lets little amusements enter his cheerful atmosphere, especially in the first half. Like the boy who has to keep going back up the stairs to fetch things for his jewel-dealer father, or when the General is looking around for the earrings and the soldiers have to keep getting up, or, of course, the dancing scenes between Donati and Louise, where the tracking shots and the dissolves merge together, and the storytelling becomes completely enriched by this combination of methods.
And Ophuls, to be sure, knows how to make this 19th century upper-class European sentiment genuine through details like how far apart the General and his wife sleep at their beds (not even in the same room), and what is never said outright or expressed makes what is felt all the more powerful. Louise, as seen through the talented Darrieux, is one who suddenly finds from what was previously a fairly basic and comfortable existence in the General's quarters- very rich quarters- to be very constricting and cold when compared to what Donati has to offer. I also liked a lot how Boyer doesn't make General Andre a completely unsympathetic villain either- he's a guy who, sort of like Louise, doesn't know how to cope with possessiveness, and sees his protective shield he's put around Louise from the world as something good for her. And the earrings, which come back to her from Donati, represent all that is possible in loving or not loving someone, with just a reminder being enough. Likewise, there's the aspect of Donati lacking the possessive qualities of his counterparts, but puts him at a disadvantage to be anything more than an incredibly charming facade, in a sense, of what could be.
So there was a lot I left pondering after the Earrings of Madame de, but it was mostly all in the context of this not really being very paunchy or pretentious, but a very exquisite presentation of the tragedy of real love for the privileged in this world. It's very entertaining as well, and I was surprised to see how many times I or someone in the theater had a chuckle (i.e. the running-gag of the jewelry-dealer popping up) when watching the film. And on top of Ophuls incredible visual prowess, the musical score is unforgettable, as I was whistling all those wonderful melodies and suites long after the film ended. Though the Earrings of Madame De is a little hard to find, unless if re-released or through obscure video channels, it's well worth it to see how far a filmmaker can go to revealing the crushing, vulnerable layers underneath the superficial surfaces. Plus, it's a great way to get introduced to Ophuls's unique style.
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