Capsule Review: “The Earrings of Madame de…”

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Max Ophuls did not make films so much as orchestrate them. And there’s not one note out of place in the cinematic symphony that is The Earrings of Madame de…, about an aristocratic woman who self-destructs in her fitful pursuit of happiness. The plot hinges on the titular pair of earrings, which exchange hands many times but always somehow make it back into the hands of Louise (Danielle Darrieux), the wife of a prominent French general (Charles Boyer) and lover of an Italian diplomat (Vittorio De Sica). The jewelry serves as both a narrative device and a symbol of her burning desire. Desire for what exactly? It’s hard to say. Louise is such a fascinating character precisely because she does not know what she wants and thus, despite her best efforts, can never attain it. Ophuls may have specialized in so-called “women’s films,” but his work was never bound by genre conventions, instead exploring the complex relationship between the sexes and surveying the inscrutable realms of the heart.  His camera was equally liberated, as evidenced by the breathless tracking shots and dazzling setpieces in this film. Earrings is many things, but it works best as a timeless commentary on the insatiable nature of desire and the tragedy of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing–until it’s too late.

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