The father of the auteur theory in America, critic Andrew Sarris, once wrote that Max Ophüls’s The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) was “the most perfect film ever made.” He was right. Rarely has a director been able to meticulously orchestrate film form in the service of narrative without losing a certain poetry. The endless tracking shots, working in conjunction with his perfectly honed sense of mise-en-scène, are coupled like Madame de (Danielle Darrieux) and Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica) in a fluid and organic dance.
The story – set in Belle Époque Europe – follows a love triangle between Madame, her husband the General (Charles Boyer), and her lover the Baron. The contrived and fateful string of events that define the film’s narrative structure begin when Madame sells off a pair of diamond earrings that her husband gave her as a wedding gift. The opening tracking shot chronicles her vast belongings as she gradually settles on the earrings so that she can square a debt she owes. She sells them to a local jeweler and tells the General that she probably misplaced them. When the story of the lost jewels hits the papers, the jeweler returns to the General to explain the situation. The General buys them back, doesn’t tell his wife, and gives them to his own mistress who subsequently loses them (after betting on number 13 twice at roulette) in Constantinople. There, they appear in a shop where the Baron buys them and they eventually make their way back to Madame when he falls in love with her.
While the story of Madame de… is a fairly simple romance plot, Ophüls adds gravity to the events by following the earrings and exploring how the same accessory can change meaning. As a gift from the General to both his wife and later his lover, the jewels are merely earrings worth a great sum of money. They lack any sentimental value because of the empty relationships both women share with the General. However, by the time the Baron gives the earrings back to Madame, she experiences a reversal of her earlier position. When she is faced with losing them at the hands of her jealous husband, she is now willing to part with her furs and emeralds – which she refused to part with in the opening scene – because the heart shaped earrings are no longer an empty symbol. They are an extension of herself.
Thus, the heart and the earrings become one of the prominent symbol in the film but Ophüls is not content to leave them without their visual counterpoint: the box. Boxes appear in almost every shot of the film: square tiled mirrors line the dance halls where she and the Baron dance, a overly illuminated square on the roulette table, black and white square tiles are present in almost every setting (sometimes in recessed staircases that become another set of squares). If the symbol of the heart shaped earrings go from an expression of the emptiness of love to its full power, they are still entrapped by the square box they are held within, just like Madame.
The symbol of the square also serves as the film’s narrative structure. In the first half of the film, they go through the hands of three other people (her husband, his lover, and the Baron) – three corners of the square – before they end up back in her possession. The jeweler almost always serves as the line connecting the dots. The visual patterns and narrative reassert the film’s central thesis: Madame’s fate is to be entrapped in a loveless marriage. She, unlike her husband who also has a lover, is limited by the social rules of the game. As illustrated by the mirrored tiles that reflect the Baron and Madame while they dance, the norms of the Belle Époque – where fainting for just a few seconds too long becomes suspect – keep the lovers trapped from realizing their passions.
Criterion’s newly released Blu-Ray is top notch. The HD transfer, based on a new restoration, is as flawless as Madame’s earrings. The mono soundtrack – a bit tinny at times – is probably the best we’ll ever get. Also, like most of their gold standard editions, the extra features are bountiful. We get a fifteen minute introduction from director Paul Thomas Anderson on the importance of Ophüls’s tracking shots. More significantly, film scholar Tag Gallagher’s visual essay on the film is one of the best pieces of bonus feature scholarship I’ve ever seen. The commentary by film studies Professors Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar is insightful and incredibly dense. My only criticism on that front is that the delivery feels a little less than organic and conversational (compared to other tracks featuring multiple participants) and a tad too rigid, which can make it feel a bit dry – even for this film buff.
And that just scratches the surface… The set also features a bounty of interviews with Ophüls’s collaborators and a booklet featuring an essay and excerpts from the novel the film. In short, this set is a cinematic treasure that is every bit as ornate and thoughtful as the film itself.