Directed by: Max Ophüls
Written by: Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls & Annette Wademant
Max Ophüls is a critical darling, and the deserved gushing from the New York critics over the theatrical re-release of this classic film is difficult to match, let alone add to. I was lucky enough to see his Letter from an Unknown Woman as an undergrad, and it ought to be immediately apparent to any viewer that Ophüls is a monstrous, demonstrable talent. Unfortunately, most of his canon is still unavailable on DVD in this country, which ultimately, these days, makes it tough to access and assess. Let’s just say that: if you’re fortunate to have the chance to get your hands on some Ophüls, don’t pass it up!
Ophüls is something like the Flaubert of film, and The Earrings of Madame de… is masterful melodrama, regarded by many as his chef-d'oeuvre. His form is flawless; he’s able here to elevate a banal love-triangle tale to a shimmering, painful and often funny work of art, with a formal elegance that matches the superficial elegance of the characters’ surroundings. Danielle Darrieux plays Louise de… (her last name is never given), who sells—to cover some debts, she cryptically claims—the earrings that her husband (Charles Boyer) gave her on her wedding day; circuitously, however, they find their way back to her as a gift from her extramarital admirer (Vittorio de Sica). They soon take on a much weightier symbolic value as they are passed and sold back and forth between lovers and relatives; like a voodoo priest, Ophüls is able to take an inanimate personal object and, through some kind of “magic”, use it to delve deep into a person’s soul.
The Earrings of Madame de… has some startlingly beautiful passages, like the fluttering pieces of a torn letter that transform on screen into the flakes of a snowfall, but it’s greatest scene is the ball montage in the middle of the film, a triumphant and memorable moment of perfect filmmaking: representing the dramatic arc of an affair, Darrieux and de Sica dance their way through time, the film passing forward through the hours of night as it simultaneously passes weeks onward through time, concluding when a weary musician leaving for the night turns the screen image to black by blocking the camera with his coat. The affair is over, the majestic grammar suggests, at least for a time.
Ophüls’ dancing and dizzying photography, with assistance from cameraman Christian Matras, is nothing short of breathtaking in this scene and in others. Because of the relatively thin script, I would, though with regret, say that the film unfortunately falls short of masterpiece status, but Ophüls has done more with the material than any other director could dare dream. I find myself unable to express the praise that I want to shower on him, feeling it might just sound redundant or vacuous. As Madame de… herself observes, it’s funny that “it’s when we have the most to say that we’re silent.”