The Earrings of Madame de… is the English-language title for Madame de…, as it was released in France, which heralds the heart-shaped diamond jewelry — not its owner — as the star of the film. The earrings do indeed play a major role, significantly altering the lives of those who possess them, seemingly propelled by their own willpower from one owner to another and back again. With a pinch more malice this would be The Lord of the (Ear)rings, a fantasy tale about tempting jewelry that instills a deadly pride in those who dare purport to wield such power. But the passionately humanist Max Ophüls ensures that this is always really the story of Madame de…, not simply of her diamonds, and the themes of pride and ownership don’t necessarily involve the earrings at all.
That sleight-of-hand is one of the many reasons Madame de… stands as the most highly-praised work by Ophüls, whose career as a filmmaker was constantly capsized by the onset of World War II. A German-born Jew, Ophüls fled and became a French citizen in 1938, only to have to flee further to the U.S. There he failed to break into Hollywood until an admirer of his work recommended him to Howard Hughes; it helped that the admirer was none other than Preston Sturges. Ophüls directed five Hollywood productions before returning to Europe in 1950, where a new stage of his filmmaking career blossomed. Each of his final films — La ronde (1950), Le plaisir (1952), Madame de… and Lola Montes (1955) — is a masterful achievement in its own right, championed thereafter by the likes of Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson.
We tend to hear those masters laud the most obvious aspect of Ophüls’s style, either explicitly or in the films they’ve created themselves: Ophüls’s weightless, magical camera that seems to float through walls. A good tracking shot can convey many things, from intensity (see: Children of Men) to rhythm (Baby Driver) to dread (The Shining) to the passage of time (Birdman, 1917). It can be deployed pointlessly, too, of course, which you realize if you saw Netflix’s numbing Extraction recently. But Ophüls consistently used fluid tracking shots to convey the grace of the characters and settings onscreen, and in the case of Madame de… we’re treated to the opulent confection of Belle Époque Paris. Grand ballrooms play host to extravagant dinners populated by wealthy socialites in silk and fur, opulence dripping from every silver chandelier, and such a thing cannot really be conveyed in film unless the camera is a part of it, sweeping through the ballroom, dancing with the characters.
Madame de… is chief among those characters, though ostensibly one about which we know very little. Her surname, of course, offers the most immediate mystery, and it calls attention to her married name before the film even really begins. From an English-speaker’s perspective, the “de…” even adds an unintended layer inasmuch as ownership (“de” meaning “of”) is implied. The ellipses, then, forces the question: to whom does the Madame belong?
Danielle Darrieux’s shifting performance throughout Madame de… is a revealing tell when faced with this question. At the start, when secretly selling the pair of earrings that her husband (Charles Boyer) had gifted her on their wedding night, her demeanor toward her husband is genteel and even carefree. Despite selling the earrings, it seems that Madame de… loves her husband and enjoys her spoiled lifestyle. But nearly every line of dialogue that passes from her to him is a lie, a series of fabrications designed to disguise the sudden absence of the earrings. Much later, after she’s met and fallen for Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica, in one of his more significant roles as an actor), Madame de… conducts herself much differently around her husband. She’s visibly sullen, engaged only in passing, quick to anger…but for the first time she’s being honest with her husband, not playing the role of a rich socialite. Love, for better and for worse, has transfigured the Madame.
Ophüls gives us a mirrored metamorphoses in the earrings themselves. As items to be sold at the start of the film, they seemingly carry very little symbolic weight to their actual owner. If they were once representative of the love between her and her husband, that meaning has been swept out to sea as the tide of their marriage receded. But the very same earrings return later as a gift from Donati, and they, like their owner, have undergone a transfiguration despite their unchanging characteristics to the outside observer. Madame clutches them lovingly and tells Donati that they are what gives her strength while they are apart. They are a life-giving, fresh symbol of love, and yet the earrings appear exactly as they did before, when they were simply another item to be exchanged for money.
With the film’s central character and central symbol so inextricably linked, those aforementioned notions of belonging and ownership are further complicated. The Madame loves a man other than her husband, and yet she’s trapped in that marriage (the “de…” again, looming). Her husband lords this legal ownership over her, going so far as to duel Donati according to the law, and yet he also is seen early in the film with a mistress. The earrings pass from person to person throughout Madame de…, and yet each of those being deigned an “owner” is dubious. If anyone can be legally said to own the earrings of Madame de…, it’s her husband, who ends up purchasing the same earrings again and again. Still, if you’re forced to purchase the same thing over and over again, it likely was not meant to belong to you in the first place.
It can be difficult to discern the nature of Madame de…, just as it’s difficult to tell when the same earring carries a vastly new meaning. She is striving to break beyond that notion of ownership, though, to not only become independent, but to truly revel in a real love shorn of circumstance and marital adornment. The opulence onscreen can be bewitching, each frame a veritable confection, Ophüls’s camera light as a feather. There is real love beneath all of that pomp, and a character fighting to navigate that societal opulence without allowing herself to be owned by it. Paul Thomas Anderson noted the “consequences” present within Ophüls’s most rapturous films, and his Phantom Thread clearly owes much to Madame de…
Both Madame de… and The Earrings of Madame de... manage to work perfectly as titles for the film, largely because Ophüls carefully layered it with equal reverence for the character and the symbol of that character’s love. The director would continue to explore the consequence of a lavish lifestyle in Lola Montes, his first and only color film, in which a circus about Lola’s life frames the story at hand. Prior to Madame de…, the likes of La ronde and Le plaisir also made heavy use of framing devices, narrators, fourth-wall-breaking and in general a very overt sense of structure. But The Earrings of Madame de… may be the most pure effort from Ophüls, both in terms of straightforward structure and in terms of theme, and it’s a masterpiece of cinema that should not be missed.