Monday, May 6, 2013

The Earrings of Madame de...

The exquisite 1953 Max Ophuls film The Earrings of Madame de... follows the trail of a pair of earrings from emblems of superficiality, to symbols of deception, betrayal, and finally of genuine love. The Countess Madame de... (Danielle Darrieux) and her husband the General (Charles Boyer) live in the upper reaches of Paris society, their evenings a round of operas, galas and sumptuous parties. She incurs a gambling debt and cannot bring herself to ask her husband for the money, so she pawns the pair of diamond earrings he gave her as a wedding present. And thus this peripatetic jewelry begins its travels.

On a trip across the Continent, the Countess crosses paths with suave Italian diplomat Baron Donati (Vittorio de Sica), who contrives a carriage collision to meet her. In one long magnificent tracking shot, Ophuls shows the pair waltzing, through 6 costume changes, their relationship deepening from flirtation to fondness to amour, ending the final dance only after a servant is snuffing out the candles and the musicians are packing up.

When she returns to Paris, the General, who could tolerate a harmless affair, observes the pair's strong feelings and sends her away to get over it, but she's restless, moody, torn - in short, she is deeply in love. Daily the Baron sends letters to all the possible places one might find her, and she reads them all and tears up her replies. Those fragments thrown from a train window become a snowstorm of longing...

The General wants his wife back as the coquettish companion of his social calls, but by now she is bedridden, consumed with grief and yearning, violating her part of the pact of a high-ranking couple. The earrings she so readily pawned as her husband's wedding gift, become as a memento from the Baron the objects most precious to her.

Boyer plays magnificently a man accustomed to power, who nevertheless tries to reason with his wife, to draw her back to the life they once shared. De Sica, for his part, shows us how the stirrings of heart disrupt even the smoothest man, making him clumsy, impatient and forgetful of all but his love. And Darrieux's beauty transforms from the glittery surface of a society lady, to an inner beauty revealed by love. A comic touch is provided by the jeweler Remy (Jean Debucourt) who buys and sells the earrings an absurd number of times under changing circumstances.

As the earrings travel in concentric circles inward, from mere tokens of wealth to items of real value, so too does the Countess mature from a careless childlike flirt to a woman of great feeling, transformed utterly by love.

This is one of the most beautiful stirring films ever made. The small screen cannot do justice to the beauty of Ophuls' visuals - ask your local movie-house to show it.