The Earrings of Madame de… opens with the privileged Parisian Madame de… (Danielle Darrieux) unassumingly conjuring her doom. She’s rifling through a closet that contains treasures that could probably net enough money to feed entire villages for a startling amount of time, but she’s passing them over with a matter of factness that will be familiar to anyone who’s inevitably grown to take their possessions for granted. It’s soon apparent that the Madame is looking for an object to sell in an effort to temporarily ease her escalating debt. A gorgeously bound Bible won’t do, as the Madame intends to honor a pretense of religious devotion later that morning, and the furs are simply too gorgeous. But a pair of diamond heart earrings, a work of craftsmanship that would awe most anyone else, are perfect for satisfying the task at hand. The earrings, after all, were a wedding gift from Madame de…’s misleadingly distant, indifferent husband, Général André (Charles Boyer), a prestigious military man who tellingly worships Napoleon.
On paper, this scene isn’t unusual, and the audience may assume that the foundation is being set for a familiar romantic tragedy offering halfhearted platitudes about the ironic trap of the upper-crust life and its attendant luxuries. It’s soon apparent, however, that director Max Ophüls is attempting something less resolvable. We’re initially primed to approach Madame de… with a contemptuous reservation no different from the way we currently resent and envy celebrities who are presented to us as possessing unimaginable wealth as well as easily resolved problems. Yet Ophüls doesn’t invite our displeasure in these opening moments, as his sinuous camera movements positively drink in Madame de…’s belongings. Trivial though her interests may conventionally be, it’s clear that they offer her legitimate human comfort, or, as the audience will learn, a facsimile thereof.
The Earrings of Madame de… isn’t rare for portraying love as a destructive force, but for its implication that true love may not be worth the destruction. Most romances, particularly the tales of conformity that traditionally pass in America for romantic comedies, celebrate love as a great self-actualizing event; falling in love in these films is usually portrayed as the surest way to tame your wilder (read: potentially subversive) instincts and get with the consumerist program. But Madame de… is miserable because she’s committed to precisely the kind of containable relationship that those films celebrate, and her world is destroyed when she finds herself submitting to true passion as people actually recognize it, which is as a fevered state of mind that leads to bouts of self-absorption that are more pronounced, and harmful, than any of Madame de…’s materialistic reveries. Her eventual love for Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica) acquaints her with true suffering, thus “redeeming” her in the mode of conventional romantic fiction, but the film invites you to share Ophüls’s obvious point of view, which boils down to “Yeah, and so what?”
Many films have decried the various institutions that oppress human desire, but The Earrings of Madame de… displays an unusual understanding of the appeal of the illusion of containment that such institutions offer, and this empathy leads to a paradoxical revelation. The tragedy of Madame de… and the Général is that they’re both “either/or” people in the tradition of many who’re born into a first-world society: It’s either the reassuring cage of conformity or the willy-nilly chaos of the heart for this couple, but the audience is allowed to see them as functional and, well, kind of happy when they’re able to blend these twin sensibilities. There’s no pretense made by either party that Madame de…’s marriage to the Général is anything other than a political gambit, and the two allow themselves to enjoy their respective romantic diversions with an openness and camaraderie that Ophüls pointedly refuses to judge. Tragedy doesn’t strike until the characters try to undo their compromise.
The earrings come to eventually epitomize the perils of maintaining such an arrangement, as they most obviously represent an attempt to control the uncontrollable; their importance and emphasis change so many times throughout the film that the audience finally grasps their essential meaninglessness, which points toward the larger meaninglessness of the dilemma the characters have been bred to manufacture for themselves. Initially, the Madame and the Général are a surprisingly progressive couple in their understanding of the complimentary yin and yang pairing of structure and chaos, but they succumb to preventable histrionics that will soon be forgotten anyway as life relentlessly marches onward. There’s a reason Ophüls’s beautiful, technically astounding tracking shots are so well remembered: They embody the sadness of the simplest truth that nothing lasts, no matter how desperately we may attempt to plan for otherwise, no matter how aggressively we may try to cast ourselves as masters of our own domain.
The image is generally sharp and appealing to the eye, and the contrast between the blacks and whites is strong, but this transfer isn’t as detailed as most other Criterion releases. There doesn’t appear to be enough grain, and skin textures often have a blank, shiny, overly scrubbed appearance. The rich French LPCM Mono 1.0 track is excellent, however, allowing the score to particularly resonate with welcome vibrancy.
The dry audio commentary by film scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar and the skin-deep intro by director Paul Thomas Anderson are somewhat disappointing, but the other supplements mostly pick up their slack. The visual essay with film scholar Tag Gallagher is an exploration of Ophüls’s celebrated visual methods, succinctly illuminating the telling subtlety of the legendary director’s compositions, while the interviews with collaborators Alain Jessua, Marc Frédérix, and Annette Wademant paint an affectionate and likeably prickly portrait of Ophüls as a traditionally manipulative taskmaster. The interview with writer Louise de Vilmorin about Ophüls’s adaptation of her novel allows her to air her various grievances, which amount to nitpicking the film’s infidelity to her novel, which is also included in the accompanying booklet. Also in the booklet is a characteristically perceptive piece by Molly Haskell and an excerpt from costume designer George Annenkov’s 1962 book Max Ophüls.
This not-quite-stellar release proves that the Criterion Collection, like the heroes of Max Ophüls’s masterpiece, isn’t quite infallible.