The Earrings of Madame de… has been called one of the perfect pictures of cinema. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted in time and space, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story. Charles Boyer gives what I believe is the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Vittorio De Sica, as the Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, is suave and serious, hiding a romantic passion, where the General is easy and joshing to hide a lack of feeling. When he falls for the Countess (Danielle Darrieux), the Madame de… of the title married to the General, the scene is played out at a dance that Andrew Sarris describes so much better than I could: “In a series of Strauss waltz sequences, the most dazzling courtship in film history is conducted before the probing eyes of the Parisian Belle Epoque aristocracy.” Her whole social life has been a series of flirtations and romantic play, but this scene is unabashedly romantic, a fairy tale of love at first sight. But it’s a fleeting moment, and for all the dreamy romance of the scenes, it’s hard to feel the heat between them because the passion simply doesn’t break through their carefully cultivated facades.
Like other of Ophuls’ films, there is a circularity to the story carried along by the journey of heart-shaped earrings of the title as they are sold, bought, given away as love tokens and farewell gifts, and ultimately make their way back to the Countess. The jewels are never more than tokens, and the heart-shaped diamonds are a cold, impersonal stand-in for affection, but by the time they come back to the Countess as a gift from Donati, she has invested them with a meaning far greater than they ever had when they were merely a present from her husband.
Darrieux, who here somewhat resembles Arletty (only more poised and less easygoing), plays the Countess as an actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or stop a confrontation at a dance. The camera’s relationship to the Countess is like a respectful dancer in an elaborately choreographed routine, one of those elaborate 19th Century group dances where you spend more time moving away from and dancing around your partner than you do actually touching them, always maintaining a respectful distance. Ophuls is sympathetic, but never really intimate, and treats the Countess like an actress who is always on stage, playing the part of the perfect socialite, until she sinks into depression at the end of the affair, her once buoyant charm now listless, her face tired and old before its time.
The Countess’ tragedy is that she realizes how meaningless the play acting and her little games and flirtations are when she actually falls in love and breaks all the rules of the game. That’s the real betrayal that the drives the General to the tragedy of the end. He’s happy to turn a blind eye to her flirtations and meaningless affairs, not one to hold a double standard (he has his own mistresses, or at least one that we know of), as long is such affairs are meaningless, mere distractions. When it becomes personal, it is an affront to everything that defines his life. Their marriage may be loveless (the separate bedrooms are not Hayes code requirements but a revelation of their separate lives), but when the General sees the Countess off at the train station (in a scene that mirrors his earlier farewell to his mistress, who leaves with the said earrings), the camera lingers on his gaze following the train off, sad at her departure. He’s as emotionally driven as she is – his jealousy is as real as her heartsick love – yet his actions are determined more by pride and ego than romantic passion. He’s as much a victim of social convention as his wife.
I appreciate all of this, but as I get older I find myself less sympathetic to the meaningless sacrifices of cultured society, where people act out of perceived harm to reputation rather than out of real emotional fury. It’s hard to embrace characters who are so determinedly shallow, playing social games and putting up appearances for the sake of social illusions, that their emotional awakening is also their doom. And maybe it’s just me, weary of the elevated romantic melodrama of the rich played for tragedy. But Ophuls is rather cool toward these characters, as if he pities their shallow facades, and Darrieux so restrained that, by the end, I don’t feel a passion so much as a desperation. It’s the model of continental ambivalence, but the Countess is less overwhelmed by passion than enthralled by the idea of love: it’s only in the absence of her attentive lover that her perfect comportment collapses. I don’t feel the tragedy of losing a soulmate – de Sica’s Baron Donati is simply too removed a lover to have an emotional presence, a man who plays the game of romance so well that he never really seems to risk his heart – as much as the realization that her life has been so empty, and is about to be so again. As I read it, it’s not so much love as hope that he represents, and the fear of a life without the hope of something more meaningful (real or not) becomes something more than she can face.
Earrings was released by Criterion with two other Ophuls films, the delicious La Ronde, the greatest romantic roundelay in the cinema (again, Ophuls and his circularity, in the narrative and in the swirling camerawork) and film that is both warmer and more bemused in its observations of love and betrayal, and Le Plaisir, a minor but lovely work compared to these two masterpieces.
I would love to see his American films come out next. Ophuls is less wry and removed in films like The Reckless Moment and Caught, less continental and more aware of class. He’s also less coy about their emotional lives, more willing to let the characters open up and let their feelings out, even if it’s just in a private, privileged moment. He’s also more open in his exploration of the barriers between the public and private, the social face and the vulnerable person underneath, and the characters are more grounded in lives we can relate to. The sensibility is still there, but pulled in interesting directions that make a revealing contrast to his elegant European films. I’m not saying better, but it’s a sensibility I find more interesting and complex the more I look into them.
For more on The Earrings of Madame de…, check out this page on GreenCine. A more technical review of the Criterion DVD (and a comparison to the British Second Sight Region 2 DVD) can be found on DVD Beaver here.