Like a lie that won’t die, the title jewelry in The Earrings of Madame de… resurface countless times, circling among lovers, salesmen, married couples and gamblers. Somehow, the earrings always return to the socialite (Danielle Darrieux) who sells them at the start in order to pay off a debt. After all, she’s the one who tells the first falsehood.
Directed by Max Ophuls and set circa 1890 Paris, Earrings is exquisite, both in its lavish craftsmanship and in the way it captures the acute joy (and pain) of romantic love. Within the picture’s dialogue – much of it exquisite itself – you’ll find the perfect phrase of self-critique: The Earrings of Madame de… is “superficially superficial.”
Darrieux’s Madame de… (her full name is never revealed) lives a life of sumptuous elegance. She has more furs than she can wear, and her romantic admirers number well beyond her husband, a general (Charles Boyer). The movie opens on her hands as they run over her endless possessions, trying to decide which item to sell to the jeweler. Eventually she settles on the diamond earrings her husband gave her as a wedding present.
…exquisite, both in its lavish craftsmanship and in the way it captures the acute joy (and pain) of romantic love.
Don’t feel too bad for him. The general’s cup also overflows, as we learn when we see him bidding farewell to his mistress (Lia Di Leo) at the train station. (When he insists he’s not getting rid of her, she tells him, “One way of leaving a woman is to let her leave.”) The general, given a dignified and unruffled air by the great Boyer, is adept at playing these sorts of games. In fact, when he learns of his wife’s actions from the jeweler and buys the earrings back, he has no compunction about sending them along with his exiting mistress on the train. Little does he know, they’ll come back.
Madame de… also believes she’s impervious to any sort of deep, emotional attachment. She bats her eyes at her admirers and encourages the attention of Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittoria De Sica), a visiting Italian diplomat. He in turn assures her that he will survive their flirtations unscathed because he knows the key is “to not hope.” But fall in love they do, during a bravura dance sequence that transitions across four different balls over four different nights and counts among the more effusive gestures in Ophuls’ considerably extravagant oeuvre.
As their affair intensifies to the point that it can no longer be ignored, not even by the urbane general, the movie turns into a tragic melodrama of the first order, a tale of love causing havoc among a trio of sophisticates who thought they were above such things. In its final moments, The Earrings of Madame de… leaves us wondering who has survived the emotional trauma, instead only assuring us of one thing: the jewelry – cold, unfeeling as it is – remains intact.