Of the several gorgeous sequences for which The Earrings of Madame de… is best known (arguably one of the medium’s definitive works, Max Ophüls’s 1953 drama often appears on best-films-of-all-time lists), there is none quite so perfectly romanticized and realized as that in which the titular Madame (Danielle Darrieux) tears up the love letters of Baron Donati (Vittorio de Sica). Not daring to send a response, she casts the fragments to the wind, with Ophüls’s camera following their gradual transformation into snow falling lightly over the countryside.
Madame de… displays its heart gradually, like a jewelry box revealing its contents — Ophüls’s deft camera work and his whimsical playfulness with narrative and timeline, are two of its finest treasures. The love affair between the Baron and Madame (we never learn her full last name — hers is a love story for everyone) is played out beautifully in an unending dance. It spins through countless balls and parties, the only places in which the two are able to meet, all shot in one continuous flowing take. When elder cinephiles throw up their hands at the megaplex and exclaim “They don’t make them like they used to,” they’re talking about films like this one.
While the titular earrings change hands rapidly throughout the film, each time they transfer ownership they take on an all-new meaning. In the opening moments, we watch (in another of Ophüls’s beautiful unbroken shots) Darrieux’s hand searching through her possessions for something worth selling to relieve her debts. When she casts them off here — despite their arrival into her life as a wedding gift from her husband (General André de…, played by the brilliantly taut Charles Boyer) — they carry no value to her beyond potential pocket money.
Upon their return gifting, this time as a token of affection from Baron Donati, the earrings not only come to symbolize the fairy tale perfection of her extramarital affairs, but her very happiness. The general, on the other hand, becomes just as haunted by them as she is, but for altogether different reasons. Buying them back twice over from Remy the jeweller (Jean Debucourt, in one of the film’s most memorable characterizations) after their continual sale back to the jewelry house he purchased them from for his wedding, he eventually can take no more, demanding, “Stay away from me with those infernal earrings!”
The Earrings of Madame de… is a pitch-perfect treatise on the nature of love, on how the smallest objects and gestures can come to represent entire worlds of emotion. Upon even one’s first viewing, however, it is so much more than that. A crown jewel of the cinema, Madame de… is a film to be acknowledged and admired for its crystalline construction and compositions. More importantly, it’s a film to be experienced as was intended, in full on the silver screen.