Sunday, November 24, 2013

Risk and Rapture: The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray DVD of The Earrings of Madame De…

Danielle Darrieux in The Earrings of Madame De...

Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame De is built around a pun. Madame De (or Madame De— as it is written in text) is also Madame Deux. Two men – her husband, Monsieur De—, and her lover, the Ambassador – divide her. She is a double woman in the sense that she is duplicitous, but even this is only one half of her character, for Madame De—’s coquettish charms belie her emotional depth. The story revolves around a pair of earrings the wealthy and elegant Madame De— sells back to the jeweler to pay off her debts. A wedding present from her husband, the earrings are returned by the jeweler to Monsieur De— who buys them a second time and gives them rather cavalierly as a parting gift to a mistress of whom he has begun to tire. The mistress pawns them at the gambling table overseas, and in a storefront window they catch the eye of a foreign diplomat. The Ambassador sails to the European country where he has just been stationed, and immediately encounters Monsieur and Madame De— in high society. Fascinated by her, he arouses her vanity, her passion and then her love; he gives her the precious earrings as a gift. Madame De— is astonished to see her jewels once again, and she deceives the Ambassador about their provenance to protect his pride; only when the Ambassador learns the truth, from Monsieur De— who sees the Ambassador as a harmless suitor and the gift of the earrings as a genial mistake, his love dries up. He suspects Madame De— of being as faithless and vacant as the jewels, an object of glittering beauty to be passed from owner to owner, just at the moment when the love she feels elevates her beyond her vanity. For the Ambassador, the charming innocence of Madame De— has vanished, but we begin to perceive that beneath her deceptions is the true innocence of a woman falling in love for the first time. Madame De— renounces the world and dies a martyr, a heart-shaped earring in each hand.

Madame De was published in France in 1951, and two years later the German director Max Ophüls adapted it as The Earrings of Madame De… De Vilmorin excised the identity of her heroine, just as Samuel Richardson had done for the nefarious landlord Mr. B— in Pamela, but Ophüls emphasized her mysteriously incomplete nature. Instead of accentuating her double-ness and duplicity, her unfinished name trails off like an unanswered question. (In the movie she is given a first name, Louise; Monsieur De— is a highly placed military general, and the Ambassador becomes the Baron Fabrizio Donati.) Ophüls is more generous to Madame De— than de Vilmorin, but as an artist he is also more romantic: he sees the high society of fin-du-siècle Paris as a floating world of exquisite and ephemeral beauty. He structures the movie as a perfect symmetry, as though split down the center by a gleaming mirror – the superficial beauty of the first half, in which Louise casts her earrings thoughtlessly aside, reflected in the profound passion of the second when the earrings, returned by Donati, have become incomparably precious. Artifice and truth are not simple opposites but two halves of the same image, so that the dividing line between them disappears. Ophüls places at the midpoint of the film an unforgettable montage of Louise (Danielle Darrieux) and Donati (Vittorio de Sica) waltzing – her transformation is conveyed in the spiraling elegance of their dance.

De Vilmorin’s novella is a passion, in the sense of the stories of saints who acquire divinity through their suffering, and in The Earrings of Madame De… Ophüls picks up on these Catholic themes – Louise’s visits to church frame the movie as well as symbolize a spiritual transubstantiation in which a worldly trinket is sanctified by the higher emotions it comes to represent. Yet in the film, unlike in the novella, it is not Louise’s masochism but her strength of mind – the tragic depth of her love, her willingness to risk all for rapture – that both elevates and destroys her. A key scene in which Donati falls from his horse during a hunting party, causing Louise, in her terror, to faint, quotes the similar episode in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when at a horse race in which her lover is competing the adulterous desires of the heroine are humiliatingly exposed before the social world. It is an invention of Ophüls’ – there is no comparable scene in de Vilmorin’s text – and it makes the link between Madame De… and the great decision-making heroines of nineteenth century novels who become, through their pursuit of fulfilling and passionate love, victims of society’s rules. Although it uses the skeleton of de Vilmorin’s story and its wily conceit, The Earrings of Madame De… is perhaps more properly an unconventional adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel. “Tolstoy kept Anna at arm’s length, in ‘middle shot,’ finding external correlatives to suggest her inner state,” wrote film critic Molly Haskell in her landmark study From Reverence to Rape, “but movie heroines are in close-up.” It is only in the combination of director and star that movies achieve the novelist’s complex perspective, Haskell continues: “They take the woman out of the plural into the singular, out of defeat and passivity and collective identity into the radical adventure of the solitary soul.” By substituting a straightforward storyline about a woman caught between her husband and her lover for Tolstoy’s sprawling multi-plot, The Earrings of Madame De… gets to the essence of Anna Karenina and its story of doomed passion in the way few direct adaptations do. 

The new Criterion Collection Blu-ray DVD release of The Earrings of Madame De… includes the complete text of Louise de Vilmorin’s heretofore obscure novella, and it also offers a sublime print of one of the most visually sumptuous movies ever made. (The exquisite camerawork is the subject of a visual essay by Tag Gallagher also included on the DVD.) One of the movie’s little ironies is that the earrings never appear in close-up until the final shot, when they are displayed in the church where Louise consecrates them to her love, but we know they are beautiful – glimmering on Louise’s ears or from the case in which the General presents them to his mistress – because they are metonymic of the beauty of the world in which these characters live, which Ophüls renders with rapturous clarity in long and lilting tracking shots. Dramatically, The Earrings of Madame De… may be descended from the novel, but visually and rhythmically it has the lucidity of music.

Danielle Darrieux and Charles Boyer; Max Opüls behind the camera

Madame De…’s earrings are hearts of diamonds, and Ophüls makes a conceptual link between their role in her fate and the playing cards that symbolize fortune and risk. (Agnes Varda would quote this motif a decade later in Cleo from 5 to 7.) In a foretelling of Louise’s romantic despair, Ophüls shoots the General’s mistress gambling away her gift at the croupier table. At berth thirteen on her train out of Paris, the General observes that thirteen is a lucky number; we know the woman has fallen desperately in love with his memory when the camera lingers on her betting everything she has on number thirteen, again and again, as it glows whitely against the cloth. Ophüls touches the surface of her unhappiness with such lightness its emotional weight becomes all the more affecting; her fixation on the gambling table is neither foolish nor reckless nor submissive, but a mark of gravitas. Whether it is in an economical, almost melodic sequence of images like these, or in the camera’s embrace of the magnificent Danielle Darrieux as it moves with her every motion, Ophüls grants his characters spiritual freedom. His achievements from behind the camera rival those of our greatest modern writers.

Amanda Shubert is a PhD student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.


  1. Nice review, or rather essay. Thoughtful, informative, well written. Good work.