Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de…

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Max Ophuls once said: ‘Details, details, details! The most insignificant, the most unobtrusive among them are often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive. Exact details, an artful little nothing, make art.’

Synopsis: In the wealthy glamorous world of aristocratic late 19th century France a love triangle of military husband, beautiful wife and charismatic Italian diplomat turns on a mere pair of earrings and ends in tragedy. 

Famous for its swirling camera-work, its decor and the fine performances of its principle actors – Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica – Madame de is a film of circular narratives: the opening and closing scene of the Virgin’s statue in church, the volutions of ownership the earrings go through, the notions of love, friendship and companionship that each character has to consider in their encounters with one another.

The earrings of the story start with little emotional meaning for the heroine even though they were a wedding gift from her husband. By the end of the film the earrings via sale, purchase and repurchase are invested with overwhelming emotional importance for Madame de and indeed for her militaristic husband. Earlier in the story he overlooks his wife’s indiscretion of selling the earrings which she does to pay off her debts. Her husband subtly buys them off the jeweller who has notified him. The power of the male here is clear: the jeweller constantly reports to the powerful husband.

It is like the Kula often referred to in social anthropology: through exchange of shells – in this film jewelled earrings – new value is conferred. New meaning comes to items. Think of the items that gain value because they were owned by Elvis or Princess Diana.

The husband in the opening scenes is made aware by the jeweller of his wife’s sale of the earrings but to spare social scandal the husband buys them back to give as a gift to one of his paramours who is going forever (a discarded lover) to Constantinople. It is there that the Italian diplomat buys the feted earrings.

This story of romantic dalliances in the upper echelons of French society of over a century ago is also a masterful exegesis on mores of that class. Affairs are overlooked but there are boundaries and Madame de oversteps them by falling in love with the Italian diplomat. Nothing is said overtly. But the final duel is a comment that in that society words, apology and forgiveness have to give way to honour, and violence, though of the most precise kind.

Understatement in speech and action is contrasted by opulence and the passionate movements of the camera. The religious undercurrent in the film also adds profound irony and deepens the viewer’s thinking about fate, destiny and the nature of religious petition and prayers answered and unanswered.

Who might enjoy this film?

  • Filmmakers should see this film for its camerawork, the performances of the actors and the brilliant handling of a circular story.
  • Historians and social scientists, especially social anthropologists, should see this film for its understanding of the social norms and mores of a particular society, accurately portraying the ways in which allusion and trope and intimation are used. Here the question “Are you f*****g my wife?” can never be uttered. (Though the lovers do mention that nothing of this physical nature has occurred.) Though Madame de often faints under pressure, all is politeness and decorum nothing is said overtly. Perhaps this means that what people assume is charged and barbed. 

Ultimately the only resolution, the only way of saving face is by a duel with pistols.

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