Criterion // 1953 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // September 24th, 2008
It was her vanity that destroyed her.
Madame de...was a very elegant, distinguished, and celebrated woman seemingly destined to a delightful, uncomplicated existence. Probably nothing would have happened had it not been for those jewels...
This film is based on a short novel by Louise de Vilmorin, with the story's setting changed from Vienna to France, around the turn of the 20th century. Rich socialite Madame de...(Danielle Darrieux, 8 Women) has dug herself a financial hole due to her extreme spending habits on expensive jewels and fashions. Out of desperation, she decides to sell a pair of diamond earrings which had been a wedding gift from her husband, General Andre de...(Charles Boyer, Fanny). To cover up their disappearance (and concurrently protect her social status), she pretends she lost them on the way to the opera.
After a fruitless search, the General is contacted by his jeweler, who spills the beans on his wife's act. He decides to give the earrings to his mistress, who goes off to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and gambles them away. Instead of getting angry over his wife's deception, the General decides to gleefully play mind games with her, only increasing the stale state of their marriage. When Madame de...falls in love with a charming Baron (Italian director Vittorio de Sica, The Bicycle Thief), however, their union is challenged by the General...especially after the Baron gives his wife a "missing" gift to express his love.
Beautifully made and brilliantly textured, Max Ophuls' The Earrings Of Madame de... may be the finest film to ever come out of France. What could have easily been a run-of-the-mill love triangle dramedy among high society becomes a genuine classic. Every single story element falls into place and every technical contribution is savory to the point of delicious. There are many shots of utter genius, boasting Ophuls' knowledge of using the medium to tell stories on not just a verbal but visual level. I could go on and on, but the point is every atom and molecule of Earrings is about as close to cinematic perfection as you could hope for.
Using such ingredients as chance, circumstance, fate and irony, Earrings can be perceived in multiple ways. On one hand, it's a cheeky satire of the rich and vain; on the other, it's a character study showcasing a woman who has literally drowned in her own narcissism, almost to the point where she has forgotten what true love really is. It comments on society's views of love, both real and manufactured, concrete and blind. It even excels as a realistic period piece full of individuals who would no doubt be treated as perfect and flawless in a Hollywood production (or remake, for that matter). Like many of Ophuls' films, its primary theme is love, and here we see its ramifications and consequences at their most provocative.
What makes Ophuls stand out from other filmmakers are his famous tracking shots, and Earrings has plenty to go around. The opening sequence alone would make a great short film, as it utilizes Madame de...'s point-of-view to unique effect (behind her back and over her shoulder). Never does Darrieux's right side leave the camera, as we see her go smoothly from closet to closet (looking for something to pawn) while also revealing herself in the process by merely mentioning her love of the furs, dresses, and necklaces. Another justly famous element is the dance montage, in which Madame de...and the Baron fall in love while dancing over a series of transitions, each recognizing a brief shift in time. Still, every single scene in Earrings has its own brand of technical magic...as well as an overflowing opulence exemplified by the sets and costumes.
On the acting front, we have three top actors working at the top of their game. Vittorio de Sica may be better known as a director (who matches Ophuls in many ways), yet his charming turn as the Baron is only one of more than 150 roles he played in his lifetime. Wisely, he never attempts to steal scenes away from the other actors or go overboard in the role of the pursuing lover. Boyer's antagonist husband is equally as memorable, and despite his mega-star status as a romantic rogue (he was the prototype for Chuck Jones' skunk Pepe Le Pew), none of his trademark love whispers are found, as he's more about snarky sarcasm here. As great as the gentleman are, however, this is really Darrieux's time to shine; her beauty is ravishing, her comic sense winning, and her body moments/vocal delivery are almost impossible to attack. No wonder she became Ophuls' leading lady, as the camera is in love with her from the first frame to last.
At this point, you're probably thinking: ok, it's a great film...so why have I never heard of it? I only knew about it in-name-only up until I got Criterion's recent release, and I'm serious when it comes to film history and criticism. Unlike many of the classics we are used to, such as Casablanca and Vertigo, Earrings has that art-house, subtitled flavor which makes it a tough sell to the average film watcher. The pace is too slow and themes too complex for those looking for simple, popcorn-fueled entertainment. Plus, most conservatives would no doubt rather get dental work done than seeing a film from France. As Molly Haskell eloquently says in her critical essay, The Cost of Living, "Ophuls' masterpiece never seems to attain the universal accolade of greatness...to most people, 'great' means 'big,' inescapably masculine and bold, and probably important with a capital I."
If you read that last sentence, you will see that Haskell hits upon something true. Like other great films such as Mildred Pierce, Blonde Venus, and Dangerous Beauty, Earrings has the distinction of having a strong, layered female lead, something which most audiences ignore, possibly due to the uncomfortable stereotyping (by mostly men) of "chick flick" when "women's film" is more accurate. As for modern female audiences, they are just more interested in the cliché-ridden romcom than a film which is foreign and half-a-century old. So, that leaves us film critics to study and embrace these films as normal people continue to walk around unaware of the treasures these films possess. C'est la vie!
Criterion continues to give the red-carpet treatment to these oft-overlooked gems when most studios would just slap a theatrical trailer on the disc and call it a day. First, let's get tech specs out of the way: like all of their releases, Criterion provides info on the transfer and, in this case, it's found in the companion booklet. Presented in its original, 1.33:1 full frame picture, the results are not as stunning as I was hoping for. The blacks and whites are equally saturated, and, yes, dirt and debris are kept to a minimum. However, the MTI Digital Restoration System wasn't able to wipe every single digital nook and cranny -- and understandably so in light of the film's age. Scratches are visible on occasion, and one instance even has a glaring vertical line; it's still a rock-solid job, no doubt the best the film will ever look. Sonically, Criterion offers a remastered and restored monaural score which is near-pristine, giving full respect to the soaring, romantic score by Oscar Straus & Georges Van Parys. The French track has been given new English subtitle translations as well. Despite few hiccups, but Criterion still impresses beyond belief...especially when it comes to bonus materials.
The companion booklet is a good place to start when it comes to the extras. After chapter info and cast/crew credits, we then come to Molly Haskell's essay, which is exceptionally well-written and bursting with information. Among other things, she talks about the adaptation, the director, as well as certain scenes from the film, both from aesthetic and visual standpoints. Next up is an excerpt ("Dressing Madame de...") from the 1962 book Max Ophuls, in which the director's longtime costume designer Georges Annenkov discusses Ophuls' approach to the project when it came to story and fashion -- -a truly fascinating piece. Finally, we have the original 1951 novel by Louise de Vilmorin, which is more like a short story. The adaptation is faithful to a point, although the author herself would shockingly denounce Ophuls' treatment; to her, the story was not about love but "boastful pride," as she states in a provided in a provided interview on the disc itself.
Also included on the disc is an introduction by Paul Thomas Anderson. This guy is one of my favorite filmmakers, and his discussion (which resembles a scene-specific commentary) makes for a fine listen. The commentary by Ophuls' scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar is for true cinephiles only, with many details provided on the man behind the camera. There are some additional interviews with those who worked with Ophuls on the film: assistant director Alain Jessua, production designer Marc Frederix, and Annette Wademant. If all that isn't enough, we also have a "visual analysis" of the movie by film scholar Tag Gallagher; he focuses much on Ophuls' use of montage and exhibition of passion in many frames, giving us a greater picture of the filmmaker's approach to cinematic storytelling. Probably the only way Criterion could have topped itself was to garner a commentary and/or interview with the film's star...who's now 91 years old and still working! Alas, we still have plenty of food for thought to digest here.
Since this film is worth more than any pair of diamond earrings, the defense rests.
Sadly, The Earrings of Madame de... didn't receive an Oscar for Best Foreign Film because the category didn't exist at the time. Instead, the Academy offered a nod to Annenkov...a bad idea, considering he was going up against Edith Head (the winner) for Sabrina. (Ironically enough, a nod was also given to Ophuls himself for the art direction-set direction in Le Plaisir). Like any film by Lindsay Anderson, the mastery of Ophuls is much too arty for Hollywood tastes -- a real pity, considering the power of film itself is rarely exploited to its full potential. Earrings is one of those rare examples, and it's highly recommended by the court.
Are you kidding? Not guilty all the way.
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Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #98
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary
* Companion Booklet
* Interviews with Ophuls' Collaborators
* Interview with Author Louise de Vilmorin
* Introduction by Paul Thomas Anderson
* Introduction by Paul Thomas Anderson