[originally published in October 2013, this review has been revived to honor Danielle Darrieux, who died this week at the age of 100 – ed.]
The European films of Max Ophuls are elaborate dances of romance and seduction in a world of social constraints and fickle lovers, and his 1953 The Earrings of Madame de…, considered by some critics one of the perfect pictures of cinema, is the most elegant of these melancholy waltzes. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story in time and space and black and white.
Danielle Darrieux is the Madame de… of the title, an old-world socialite in 19th century Paris in a marriage of convenience to confident, cultured diplomat Charles Boyer. She plays the Countess as a supremely poised actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, such as fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or to stop a confrontation at a dance. Boyer gives 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. Together they master the illusion of the perfect social pair while spending their free time dallying with flirtatious suitors and casual lovers, but the illusion is shattered when the Italian diplomat Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica) enters the picture.
Where Boyer’s General is easy and joshing to hide a lack of feeling, De Sica has an effortless charm that covers a romantic passion, and he falls for the Countess in a magical dance sequence that Andrew Sarris describes so eloquently: “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.” The Countess’s 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, there’s no heat between them. The passion simply doesn’t break through their carefully cultivated facades and their romance isn’t so much true love as a glimpse into the possibilities of true emotion that she has denied herself. Donati isn’t necessarily her soulmate, but he shows her that perhaps such a thing is possible, and that possibility haunts her.
As in Ophuls’ La Ronde, there is a circularity to the story carried along by the journey of the earrings of the title. They are sold at the opening of the film by Madame, bought again by the Count, given away as love tokens and farewell gifts, and ultimately make their way back to Madame. 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.
Ophuls choreographs as much as he directs and his camera is both an intimate part of the dance and a distant observer of inevitable tragedy, capturing a culture of courtly manners petrified into meaningless ritual threatened only by the irrationality of emotion. He’s sympathetic, but never really intimate. The camera acts like a respectful partner 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 actually touching them, always maintaining a proper distance.
Darrieux is so restrained that, by the end, it’s not passion but desperation that drives her. She’s enthralled by the ideal of love that she has denied herself. Boyer’s Count is 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. It’s not her affair that he objects to, it’s her emotional engagement. A meaningless distraction he can understand, but love with another man an affront to everything that defines his life. He’s as much a victim of social convention as is his wife.
The tragedy of The Earrings of Madame de… is ultimately not about 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 — but the realization that her life has been so empty, and is about to be so again. She realizes how meaningless her little games and flirtations have been when faced the possibility of something more. Fear of a life without the hope of something more meaningful (real or not) becomes more than she can face.
Criterion previously released the film on DVD in 2008 in a windowboxed edition. The Blu-ray is newly remastered (with no windowboxing) from Gaumont’s 2012 2k restoration and the image is cleaner, sharper, and richer than the earlier DVD, though there have been pockets of criticism accusing the Gaumont restoration of too much digital filtering. That may be true, but on my screen it’s a distinct improvement over the DVD.
New to disc is an “Introduction” by Paul Thomas Anderson, which is more accurately a 14-minute appreciation with discussion of some key scenes (and some spoilers). Carried over from the earlier release is commentary by film scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar, which is a decidedly scholarly affair of prepared essays presented as a conversation, and an excellent 17-minute video essay on the visual style by Tag Gallagher. Also from the earlier release is a lengthy video interview with Ophuls’ assistant director Alain Jessua, archival interviews with co-screenwriter Annette Wademant and assistant decorator Mar Frédérix (both from 1989), and a 1965 interview with Louise de Vilmorin, the author of the original story.
The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic Molly Haskell, an excerpt from costume designer Georges Annenkov’s 1962 book Max Ophuls, and Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame de, which inspired the film.