The Earrings of Madame de…

The Earrings of Madame de...

While watching The Earrings of Madame de… you might be forgiven for thinking the aristocratic Count at the centre of the story is the most mild mannered and forgiving husband in the history of film. His wife is a vapid social butterfly, flirting with anyone in tight trousers and spending him into ruin. Yet he takes this in his stride, forever a wry smile on his lips and a spring in his step, not even the arrival of super suave Baron Donati, the international diplomat with relentless designs on the Count’s wife can throw him. For this relationship is more forgiving and robust than we imagine. The Comptess and her husband allow each other the latitude to stray but only within societal bounds. Flirting is fine, as are discreet affairs but falling in love with a suitor? Totally unacceptable. In a deathless phrase the Count declares that their marriage is ‘only superficially superficial’.

This is the story of two people who cannot allow themselves to follow their feelings and the cascade of trouble that unfolds when one of them begins to lie to the other. The General’s wife – the Madame de… of the title – opens the film worried about a debt and which of her many baubles she should sell to finance it. She chooses the earrings her husband bought her on their honeymoon and makes haste to the jewellers. We follow these earrings as they change hands much as the we followed the 500 franc note in Bresson’s L’Argent until they end up in the possession of the globetrotting Baron Fabrizio Donati. Stationed in Paris for a peace conference Donati is drawn into Madame de’s circle and the two soon fall for each other and he gifts the jewels to her as a token of his infatuation.

The Earrings of Madame de...

So while the earrings once held little or no worth to the Comptess, once they are imbued with meaning by a man she truly loves they become her most treasured possession. However to keep them she must lie to her husband, her friends and eventually even to Donati himself, a process that threatens to crush her.

Earlier in the story she had told her husband of a harmless fib and claimed “I don’t lie very well”. “That’s fine,” replied the Count “no need to make a habit of it.” Now she sees that one lie leads to another and her life spins out of control as deception follows deception, eventually jeopardising her social position, her peace of mind and even her health. She has uncovered a deeper meaning outside of the fripperies of high society but soon discovers the price she must pay is astronomical.

Beyond the expert storytelling the film is put together spectacularly well. Both costumes and sets are sumptuous while the camerawork and editing are master classes in the art. The stand-out moment being a series of long takes in the middle of the film where Donati and Madame de waltz together – and slowly realise their love – at a half dozen parties over the summer in one long dollie shot, sewn together so well it comes off looking like a single take. It’s quite a breathtaking cinematic moment that captures the heated passion at the heart of this tale.

This is not just the best film in Ophüls’ canon – it’s a triumph of the art form and comfortably one of the best films ever made.

The Earrings of Madame de… – directed by Max Ophüls (1953)


In Short
In a welcome return to France after his wartime exile in the States Max Ophüls created his masterpiece. The love triangle between Boyer, Darrieux and De Sica is riveting.
Opening clip here