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"It was her vanity that destroyed her."
Tag line for The Earrings of Madame de...
Had vanity been the only source of its leading lady's problems, The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) would be little more than a footnote in film history. But in the hands of director Max Ophls and its unbeatable trio of stars -- Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica -- the story of a French woman done in by a series of white lies rises to the level of high tragedy. Although it opened in the U.S. to faint praise, this elegant romance is now acknowledged as one of the treasures of world cinema and, for many, the brightest gem in the career of one of the screen's greatest directors.
Many of Ophls' stylistic trademarks -- his meticulous design of detailed mise en scenes that define and confine his characters, his framing of close-ups that probe character psychology and his use of tracking shots as a series of moving portraits that comment on his characters -- were developed during his years as a stage director. In fact, many of his films are constructed in the best dramatic tradition. The plot of The Earrings of Madame de..., for example, is almost classically framed, with the story opening and closing with a consideration of the eponymous jewelry that passes through a series of owners until returning to the hands of the leading lady. As with many of the plays with which Ophls had grown up -- particularly those of Arthur Schnitzler, whose La Ronde he had filmed to great acclaim in 1950 -- the film's glittering surfaces masked a subtext of pain and heartache that went beyond mere vanity.
The novella by Louise de Vilmorin had been published in 1951, and some critics contend that its protagonist, identified only as Madame de, was a self-portrait, the noted beauty's critique of her own carefree approach to life. Ophls knew Vilmorin and was a frequent guest at her salons along with such notables as Jean Cocteau and Anas Nin. He turned to her book when plans to film Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais fell through (Jacques Rivette recently the Balzac novel to the screen in 2007 as Ne touchez pas la hache). That film would have given him the chance to direct Greta Garbo, a dream pairing as both excelled at finding the humanity within doomed romantics. Her costume tests for what would have been her comeback after a decade off screen would become her last professional work.
At a scant 62 pages, Vilmorin's novella sketched out the basic plot points in the film. A General's wife sells her earrings, a wedding present from her husband, to pay her gambling debts, then tells him she has lost them. Her husband learns of the deception and buys the jewelry back as a farewell present to his mistress. When she loses them gambling they fall into the hands of an Italian baron who then falls for the wife and gifts her with her own earrings. Vilmorin left the characters unnamed, using the abbreviated Madame de and General de in a tribute to 19th century novelists who had used the same device to suggest their stories were based on real-life events. She did not give her story any clear setting in time or place, however, leaving the details to the reader's imagination. In his adaptation, Ophls kept the naming, creating the suggestion that his characters could represent anybody from the story's milieu. He also fleshed out the other details. In particular, he set the story in Paris during the 1890s, a period with which he felt a strong personal connection. And as a tribute to the author, he gave his leading lady her first name, Louise.
Ophls also shaped the screenplay to fit two of his stars. Darrieux, who had risen to stardom as Boyer's doomed mistress in Mayerling (1936), had long been considered one of the finest actresses in French film. Ophls not only wrote the leading role for her, but informed producer Ralph Baum that if she were not available, he would not make the picture. De Sica, who had been a stage and screen star before turning to directing, had approached Ophls the year before for a role in Le Plaisir (1952), but the director thought Jean Gabin a better choice for the role. Instead, he promised De Sica that he would use him as soon as he had the right role, then wrote The Earrings of Madame de... with him in mind.
Boyer was returning to French film for the first time since World War II, a period he had spent in Hollywood working in the interest of Franco-U.S. relations. He had a much more difficult time on the film than his co-stars, constantly questioning his character's motivation. Finally, Ophls exploded, "Enough! His motives are [that] he is written that way!" Boyer never questioned him again, simply playing all of his scenes with a sense of aloof power.
On its initial release in Europe, the picture ended with the earrings passed on to a nun and then to a young bride who is poised to follow the Madame's path of self-destruction. Realizing the extra scenes weakened the film, Ophls personally cut them from all existing prints. In Europe, the film was released simply as Madame de..., but the U.S. distributor added The Earrings of for its debut there in 1954 (in other nations it was called Golden Earrings and The Love of Their Lives). In that era -- before the rise of the auteur theory, which examines the meanings generated by directorial style -- some American critics dismissed the film, as they had with many of Ophls' Hollywood films. Writing in the New York Times, "A.W." labeled the picture "elegant and filled with decorative but basically unnecessary little items, which give it gentility and a nostalgic mood, but nothing much more substantial." In later years, a new generation of critics more attuned to Ophls' directing style would find the "decorative...little items" both necessary and extremely substantial. The French auteur critics and their U.S. followers would spearhead a major reevaluation of Ophls' films, eventually ranking The Earrings of Madame de... among the greatest works in film history. In 2007 a new 35 mm print played in New York City to noticeably better reviews than it had received in 1954.
Producer: Ralph Baum
Director: Max Ophls
Screenplay: Marcel Achard, Max Ophls, Annette Wademant
Based on the novella Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Art Direction: Jean d'Eaubonne
Music: Oscar Straus, Georges Van Parys
Cast: Charles Boyer (General Andre de...), Danielle Darrieux (Comtesse Louise de...), Vittorio De Sica (Baron Fabrizio Donati), Jean Debucourt (Monsieur Remy), Jean Galland (Monsieur de Bernac), Mireille Perrey (La Nourrice).
by Frank Miller