The Earings of Madame de: 1950’s French Cinema chic

“Whenever love touches history, events of the past belong to the present.”

What a glorious pleasure it was to be immersed in The Earings of Madame De for an evening. The sumptuous filming, the beautiful costumes, the witty and sophisticated complex story line.

The basic story is: a silly spoilt wife of a General sells the earings he gave her the day after their wedding to pay of a frivolous debt. This sale triggers a series of events – a fascinating combination of the real and the imagined –  that result in the complete breakdown of the marriage and a tragedy Madame De will never be able to escape from. The earrings are the talisman of human failing, coming back to the household repeatedly to remind its habitants of failings past that impact greatly on the present.

Sub themes of the film include the frivolous relationship with material goods, war and diplomacy, and the relationship between the very wealthy and their servants.

 

The film is famous for the beautiful costuming (losing out of the Academy award to Sabrina that year) and Max Ophuls’ stunning direction. The ballroom dancing scenes are some of the best cinema I have ever seen, particularly the scene where Madame De falls in love with her new lover, taken after her Husband buys the earings back to say farewell to his own lover. More than this is the directional features of smooth camera movements, complex crane and dolly sweeps and tracking shots. According to the wiki, the young Stanley Kubrick was deeply influenced by the work of Max Ophuls at the beginning of his career.

The film is the third last that Ophuls will make and is considered to be one of his greatest achievements. He was smart enough to select a brilliant novel, Madame De written by Louise Leveque de Vilmorin, published in 1951 and adapted for the screen two years later. While the film is a fitting tribute to the novel, the real star of this story is the complex characterisations and the examination of the human condition. Lies and the consequences of lies – not necessarily in the tangible world, but in the haunted recesses of our hearts is the underlying theme of Madme De. The consequences of living to ourselves and the results of our own emotional overindulgence.

In the novel the protagonists are left nameless, but Ophuls gives them names. She is Louise, her husband is Andre and the lover who comes between them is Baron Fabrizio Donati. Andre is a general and Fabrizio is a diplomat – men whose role it is to act when the other fails. Charles Boyer plays Andre and Danielle Darrieux plays Louise. Both these actors were a little past their prime when Ophuls selects them for these jaded and somewhat cynical role. Both their characters are good in their heart, even if their toying with their own lives leads to acts of cruelty and harm. Neither can escape the consequences of their own foolishness.  The Baron is played by Vittorio De Sica, also a director. (“Shoeshine,” “Bicycle Thieves,” “Umberto D.”)

One of the most poignant scenes, beautifully portrayed is the crises moment when Andre presents his wife with the earings towards the end of the film. The earrings, that meant so little when they were “just” a honeymoon gift, are so filled with meaning now they have been gifted her in the past by Donati, that Andre, shocked by the depth of her happiness, snatches them away from her again instantly. The desperate sadness in Louise’s face posited against the shocked desperation in Andre’s as they both realise their marriage is on the brink of collapse, despite the unrealistic nature of their mutual theatrics. I watched this scene twice, powerfully moved by the ability to bring such a world of complexity to one singular cinematic moment.

The film has a 100% top rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Some gossip states that Jean-Pierre Melville was present on the shoot and is rumored to have directed the extras in the dancing sequence.

Six years after this film was made, Truffaut would show The 400 Blows at Cannes and shock the cinematic world into never showing the same sorts of films again. Despite the old world charm of its place in history, The Earings of Madame De survives as a contemporary tale simply because films this beautiful never go out of style.

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