Maestro Max Ophüls offers a masterclass in sensuous camera movement with this re-released classic.
The four French films with which the German-born director Max Ophüls rounded off his storied career are noted for exuding a greater level of opulence and for unfolding in a more baroque climate then the quartet of American films he made just prior to returning to Europe in 1950.
Yet they’re no less concerned with the plight of women in untenable circumstances, a conundrum enforced by the director’s famed camera movements which often seem to inscribe the characters in their arc.
While Ophüls’ final three American movies, all crafted in the workable genres of the 1940s (noir, the woman’s picture), dealt with heroines who started out in modest or middle-class circumstances, with his penultimate film, the 1953 masterpiece The Earrings Of Madame De..., the director turned his focus to an upper-crust wife living a luxurious but unsatisfying life in fin de siècle France.
No matter. If anything, Comtesse Louise (Danielle Darrieux) lacks the agency of her less affluent American counterparts. Married to a prosperous general (Charles Boyer) and having no children, she has little to occupy her time save for the accumulation of endless expensive baubles and harmless flirtations at society events.
The most significant of these baubles are the spectacular earrings of the film’s title, a wedding present from her husband and an object whose constant changing of hands throughout the course of the film triggers the movie’s intricate and perfectly orchestrated plot mechanics.
In desperate financial straits, Louise sells the earrings back to the jeweller from whom her husband initially purchased them. The husband then buys them back a second time, only to give them to a mistress. She then sells them in Constantinople to pay a gambling debt where they’re purchased by Italian nobleman Baron Donati (Vittorio de Sica), who becomes Louise’s lover (a later line of dialogue suggests they haven’t consummated their romance, but we’re not meant to believe it), an affair that precipitates the film’s inevitable tragedy.
The earrings, like most commodities, are worthless in themselves. They’re only granted value by the import people attach to them. Thus, throughout the course of the film, as they move along their elliptical orbit, they take on meaning based on who is giving them to whom, just as their monetary value is dictated by terms that are at least partially arbitrary.
So the earrings, once worthless to Louise, suddenly become a prized possession when they’re offered to her as a gift from Donati. And only when they take on this value to the heroine are they granted the power to become her undoing.
The path traced by the earrings is only one of a series of interlocking circles on which the film is built. This orbit is complemented by the circular movements of characters through stationary architecture, the circular glidings of Ophüls’ camera and the glorious circles traced by Louise and Donati in a sequence of elliptical ballroom dances that dissolve several months into a few minutes of screen time.
In the end, though, all these circles collapse, closing fatally in on the film’s constricted heroine, left with nothing but inevitable decease. The characters, caught between the warring forces of societal law and passion, are crushed; only the earrings, built of sturdier stuff, remain.
For those who haven’t caught up with Ophüls’ masterpiece, now’s the chance to do so on the big screen.
The film’s luscious camera movements, delicious ironies, and affecting story are impossible to refuse.
Even in a career composed of little but high points, Ophüls’ Earrings shines brightly.