The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) is a beloved period costume drama, but in terms of visceral impact and camera movement, it’s an action flick. Director Max Ophüls translated emotions into not just dynamic motion but the tension between abruptly shifting speeds, rhythms and screen direction and a camera pushing to keep up. Many directors’ storytelling shows all the grace of a street brawl; this fight moves like capoeira. Ophuls’s camera never lurches or lapses in adjustment; it always rounds out its movements with momentous fluidity. In La Ronde (1950), the camera waltzed teasing circles around its succession of errant lovers. In Madame de... there’s a lot of whimsical waltzing, but the camera (generally on a dolly but sometimes riding a crane) dances in a dizzying range of styles.
The basic story is juicy, tangled melodrama. In fin de siecle Paris, Louise (Danielle Darrieux), the wife of general Andre de… (the movie’s famous for not revealing the couple’s last name), sells expensive earrings that the general (Charles Boyer) once gave her to pay off debts. To conceal her betrayal, she pretends to have lost the earrings at an opera performance. A (19th century-style) media circus and hunt for the ’jewel thief’ ensue, but the jeweler discreetly sets the general straight about his wife’s deception. The general buys back the earrings and promptly gives them to his mistress before she leaves town for good. He never lets on that he knows his wife has lied to him. That’s not the last the general or his wife see of the earrings, though, and the hurtful lies have only just begun piling up.
It’s love and all the damage done to it in the course of male/female relations that gives The Earrings of Madame de… its hot feet. We follow the torturous progress of this love, held in the kind of suspense you feel watching a Titanic movie: You know folks are going to drown, but when—and who? While the romantic intrigue carries us along, Madame de… earns its reputation by taking the scenic route through every level of both French society and personal pain. Without a marrow-deep understanding of love and loss, Madame de… probably comes off as a floridly tedious spectacle of ball gowns and candelabras. And those damned earrings. But seen through the elaborate latticework of secrets and compromises adults erect to shore up love against time’s ravages, those baubles might as well be the bloodiest of blood diamonds.
The film’s most striking aspect is the way the general, his wife and her eventual lover, the Italian Count Donati (Vittorio De Sica), smile through their pain and heartbreak. Something’s got to give, and Ophuls uses his camera to dramatize the ’give’ in delicate, heart-sinking gestures. One of the film’s famous sequences dramatizes the affection blossoming between Madame de… and the count in a series of waltzes that grow more gravely intimate over time. Few films about romance are so eloquent at evoking the grim realities that loom over a love affair even at the infatuation stage. (Similarly, De Sica’s and Boyer’s tender performances give the lie to certain critics’ insistence that this is a “woman’s picture.” Yes, these men behave like jerks and creeps at certain turns, but the film ultimately sees through to their vulnerability just as clearly as it sees past the countess’s apparent superficiality to her virtual prisoner status.)
As he proved in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Ophuls can make things like a spiral staircase sing the blues; in Madame de…, he lets the swirling staircase at the local jewelry shop tell us a little something about how the merchant/service classes survive, and, um, move up by tending the upper class’s dirty laundry. The camera glides up and up with Madame de and the jeweler as they conspire to make a deal behind her husband’s back. Later, the jeweler’s son comically boomerangs between his office and the stairs each time his father asks him to fetch something he forgot. In a society dominated by fickle, fading rich, there’s no such thing as an idle middle class.
Along the margins of this tale, we also get glimpses of discontent among the general’s soldiers, the ballroom waitstaff and the “de” family’s beleaguered servants. Without much fuss or any big stand-alone set pieces, Ophuls gives the sense of simmering street-level unrest—in passing. His gliding camera lingers on the help just long enough for us to eavesdrop on their gripes before returning to the melodrama proper. What elevates these moments from the servile bits of business in opulent costumers like Gone with the Wind and The Leopard is the way Ophuls’s sharp transitions punctuate the discontent. He fears and feels for the declining, alienated aristocrats drowning in their useless wealth, but he also whispers “right-on!” to the proles with an underscoring cut or pan.
Madame de… is about love between men and women; between Ophuls and the terrible beauty of people maneuvering through cluttered spaces on the way to happiness that always seem just out of grasp. Wong Kar-wai/Chris Doyle/William Chang had to have seen and bowed before this film when undertaking In the Mood For Love and 2046. Nina Simone might have been thinking about Madame de when she sang so liltingly in “The Desperate Ones,” ’They watch their dreams go down before the setting sun, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ In Madame de, Ophul’s camera and his actors take turns embodying the dreams, the setting sun and the “yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism. A new 35mm print of The Earrings of Madame de… plays through March 30 at New York’s Film Forum. For details, click here.