“The Earrings of Madame de…”, the clever and sensuous movie directed by Max Ophüls in 1953, is based on the eponymous novel published by the French author Louise de Vilmorin. Ophüls modifies the novel’s end, a tad melodramatic to his opinion, to shoot a cruel and subtle tale which is definitely more in line with his own beliefs – should I say: his own obsessions – unhappy love and death.

1892. Madame de… whose first name we only know – Louise (played by Danielle Darrieux) – is a beautiful, vain and superficial countess who fills the void of her existence with the adornments and appearances which govern the aristocratic world in which she gracefully evolves.

Her husband, a high-ranking general of the French army (played by Charles Boyer), tolerates the inconsequential social flirtations of his frivolous wife.

In order to settle personal debts induced by her expensive lifestyle, Louise secretly sells a pair of diamond earrings offered by her husband the day after their wedding. She disguises the disappearance of the earring by pretending to have lost them at a opera party a few days later.

The general, believing the earrings have been stolen, causes such a scandal at the opera house that all Paris is aware of the loss, including the jeweler to whom Louise sold the earrings. He comes to the general to tell him the truth.

The general, amused, repurchases the earrings and offers them as a farewell gift to his mistress who leaves Paris for Constantinople. Unfortunately, in order to honor her gambling debts, she sells the earrings once in Constantinople.

Baron Donati (played by Vittorio de Sica), on his way to Paris, falls under the spell of the earrings displayed in the jeweler’s window in Constantinople and buys them.

Later appointed ambassador in Paris, Baron Donati meets Louise and falls in love with her. At first amused by an inconsequential flirtation with Donati, Louise soon realizes that she is deeply in love for the first time in her life.

In order to forget Donati and save social appearances, she decides to leave Paris for a while. But before her departure, Baron Donati offers her the earrings acquired in Constantinople. The circle has come full circle, if I may say so, since these are obviously the earrings that first belonged to Louise – but the Baron obviously has no idea.

Back in Paris and still in love, Louise resolves to continue her love affair with Donati. Wishing to wear the earrings offered by her lover, she pretends to find them in front of her husband, supposedly lost in a pair of long gloves that she had not put on for a long time.

The stunned husband goes to find Baron Donati, tells him the crazy story of these earrings, and asks him to sell them back to the family jeweler so the general can buy them back – again. Donati complies but, utterly confused, seeks an explanation from Louise, who becomes entangled in a web of lies in order to keep up appearances. Disappointed, Donati ends their romantic relationship.

Louise falls into a deep depression, as she realizes that she has just lost the only man she has ever loved. The general, believing that his wife’s illness is pure comedy, presents the earrings to Louise – asking her to give them to their niece, who has just given birth. Louise tearfully agrees but the general soon understands that the earrings represent in his wife’s eyes her lost love for Donati.

The unhappy husband challenges Donati to a duel. Of course, none of the three protagonists will come out unscathed.

Louise de Vilmorin’s novel ended with a dying Louise giving an earring to her husband and an earring to her lover, but Max Ophüls scorned this melodrama for a far more tragic and moving ending. The movie, which begins as a vaudeville, ends in tragedy.

The viewer follows the convolutions of these earrings which carry a fatal fate. At first empty of human meaning, reflecting a social status, this pair of earrings gradually carries love, lies, betrayal and death.

The earrings accompany the unfortunate evolution of a frivolous, self-centered and superficial woman, suddenly confronted with the depth of love. Unfortunately, poorly armed for such deep feelings, she will get lost.

The central role of this pair of earrings evolving in a perpetual circular movement is only the metaphor of the world of appearances which spins on itself and leads human beings to their destruction. These earrings will finally complete their fatal cycle in a last still shot, deserted by humanity.

The circular movements that dominate the film – whether it is dance scenes, staircase curves, draped dresses – and the incessant circular movement operated by these earrings do structure “Madame de…” in the shape of a downward spiral sucking in the protagonists, who inexorably approach the tragic outcome of their intimate drama.

The whirling begins in the first scene of the film, which follows Louise’s hands lingering over the jewelry and furs. Her face will only be revealed after several long minutes, but Louise is already talking about the inconsiderate sale of a wedding present from her husband. Louise is then just a shadow, then becomes a reflection in a mirror.

She only exists through the expensive artifices in the midst of which she swirls.

She only exists through the artifices of her social class in which she swirls too.

She’s superficial and inconsistent in her actions – whether it’s flirtation or the careless sale of precious jewelry – and in her words that say the opposite of how she feels or who she is (“I don’t love you, I don’t love you” or “it is only superficially that we are superficial”).

Max Ophüls’ instructions to Danielle Darrieux to take on the role of Louise were both very simple and very difficult: “Your task will be hard. You must, armed with your beauty, charm and elegance, embody absolute emptiness, inexistence. You will become on screen the very symbol of irrelevant fleeting futility. And the spectators will have to be enamored, seduced and deeply moved by this image”.

And in fact, Danielle Darrieux delivers a dazzling performance.

Mai 13, 2022

Vintage tulle gown from Marcel et Jeannette, Parisian Flea Market – YSL fur jacket – Ted Baker purse – JD Barocca earrings – Vintage opera gloves – Jimmy Choo heels