There have been several films that I can think of that seem to follow an inanimate object (or animal) as it is transferred ownership to different people, with the meaning or importance of said object changing depending on the situation and the person involved. Anthony Mann’s
Winchester ’73 (1950) follows a rifle across several owners. Tales of Winchester (1942) is a fascinating film involving several stories following a formal tailcoat. There’s also The Red Violin (1998). Even Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and War Horse (2011) do something similar. Max Ophuls’ magnificent melodrama The Earrings of Madame de… seems to follow a similar pattern on the surface, as a pair of expensive earrings transfer owner several times. Ophuls’ film, though, seems to somehow transcend this plot device. It’s not really about following the earrings. In fact it is more about the motivations behind the giving and receiving of them. Considering the monetary value of the earrings, no single person seems to give them a second thought until the earrings come full circle back to the original owner, as they are finally received as a gift of true love, becoming a glimmering example of both a failed marriage and an adulterous affair. Manhattan
Max Ophuls wrote his screenplay along with Marcel Archard and Annette Wademant, based on the novel by Louise de Vilmorin. Their story concerns Louise (Danielle Darrieux) whom we meet at the beginning of the film as she is pawning her expensive earrings that her husband Andre (Charles Boyer) had bought for her, so she has money to pay off some debts. She feigns having lost the earrings, causing her husband to search for them. When a reward for the earrings appears in the newspaper, the pawnshop owner comes to the husband offering them back to him. He in turn, realizing how little his wife cared for them, gives them to his mistress Lola, who goes on a trip to
Constantinople where she sells them. These earrings will return later to Louise after she begins a passionate affair with Baron Fabrizio Donati (played magnificently by Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica) but the meaning placed upon the earrings changes significantly for Louise as she receives them as a gift for the second time in her life.
This film as a whole is a rather odd nut to crack. I found that the film really gets better as it goes along and you need to stick with it and really pay attention in order to follow it. While the opulence of the décor, the costumes, the cinematography, and the ripe, affair-ridden plot is rather overt, the film refrains from becoming soggy and actually flies by at rapid speed, never lingering too long but maintaining a mysterious and odd propulsion brought on through the dense scenes packed with images and movement often taking center stage over the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue almost eludes me at times as the performances are superbly underplayed, especially from the gorgeous Darrieux with a magnificent set of reserved emotions, Charles Boyer as her aloof husband and from De Sica as her ennobled lover. Furthermore, even the very words said in the film are reserved to the point of being almost anti-romantic or anti-conflict. Louise and Andre have an important marital discussion, but they engage each other from separate rooms in separate beds. And in the film’s most passionate moments Louise coos to her lover Fabrizio, “I don’t love you. I don’t love you. I don’t love you”.
I actually feel that the passion of Louise and Fabrizio’s affair is more reflected in the famously fluid and kinetic tracking shots employed throughout the film that are neither superfluous nor grandiloquent, particularly as we swirl around the ballroom during their dances where in fact the tracking shots serve to connect us to Louise and Fabrizio through the smooth swaying and undulations. In another Ophuls touch, the set decoration often requires the camera to gaze through curtains, windows or mirrors in order to view faces, as if the fragile nature of these characters’ lives must be protected from too much exposure. This was a film that really grew on me while I was watching it, and in the film’s final moments I found myself extraordinarily moved by the tragic climax and rather surprised at the spell the film had cast upon me. Ophuls’ careful balance of opulence and subtlety created his signature masterpiece and one of the most perfect melodramatic love stories ever made. This is one of the all-time greats.