We always follow the earrings. At first a wedding gift from the unnamed General (Charles Boyer) to his unnamed wife (Danielle Darrieux), they move from person to person, finding their way in and out of people’s lives in ways at first fortuitous, but increasingly, destructive. In The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) Max Ophuls’ camera glides elegantly, but it doesn’t move with an all-knowing certainty, it always follows, whether a person, an object, or a look. Far more concerned with the material than the emotional, it keeps enough of a distance to give a great sense of the opulent milieu that surrounds the tragic and ironic lives of his characters. But the first shot holds close, moving through furs and jewellery and coats and hats, a world of objects that Madame lives in as she struggles to find a single thing she’s willing to sell in order to pay off the debts she’s accrued, eventually deciding on the earrings she’s half-forgotten. The opening shot ends with her perfectly framed in an ornate mirror. She’s not trapped in this world, she’s a part of it; what we see isn’t Madame but a reflection on another beautiful surface. As the film increasingly explores the spiritual that is at first so casually dismissed—Madame drolly notes that she needs her bible more than ever as it falls from the shelf it’s been carelessly thrown onto—perhaps we see even less, a reflection of a reflection; the body is just another object, only briefly filled with a spirit.
For all her selfishness, her materialism, her manipulations, Madame remains very likeable; self-assured, and at enough of a distance to be composed amongst the absurd pettiness of the supposedly sophisticated Belle Époque. When the General is wandering around the theatre looking for the supposedly lost earrings, a man accuses him of simply looking at his wife in a way that might suggest suspicion. Hardly a polemicist, Ophuls is most critical of the things he loves. He gives so much room to luxuriate in every draping curtain, every extravagantly detailed painting and every flickering candle reflected in the mirrored walls; it’s a beautiful world of beautiful things, but that never obscures how silly it is, or how dull. Madame is something of a performer—before pretending to lose her earrings, she pretends to faint at the jewellers—because she’s an ironist, she has to be, most of the characters are. All of these supposedly material things are glittering and suggestive: of taste, of gender, of class.
Unlike his contemporary, and a more obviously religious director, Robert Bresson, who finds the material world endlessly burdensome and heavy, the only reprieve coming in the lightness of the spiritual. The two cannot connect without a miracle, which only seems to come at the end of a long life of suffering; maybe then you’ll hear the quiet ringing of bells. For Ophuls the spiritual is the only thing with any weight at all, the literal world is as light as air; immaterial and diffuse, and he finds much pleasure in that. The film spins on the axis of the earrings’ amusingly serendipitous journey. After the General buys them back from the jeweller, he gives them to his mistress (Lia Di Leo), who sells them, later to be bought by Donati (Vittoria De Sica), a diplomat who will become Madame’s lover and returns them to her. Some life is even revived in Madame and the General’s dying marriage when he decides not to tell her that he knows about the earrings. When they’re both lying to one another sparks can flicker again, they flirt, if only with raised voices from their distant beds. For Bresson there aren’t even flickers of harmony with the cruel material world, but for Ophuls there is something freeing in its distance from the gravity of religion, irony is a fittingly frivolous lens.
Even Ophuls’ role as director is infused with irony, he’s someone who suggests rather than shows. The long dances between Madame and Donati, moving to and from the camera, at one point surrounded by paintings, quotations of dance, echo the scene in his earlier La Ronde (1950), where the mysterious master of ceremonies—a kind of demigod lightly guiding, directing, another series of coincidences—bemoans the censors as he cuts out a sex scene. As Madame and Donati’s relationship grows more intense, irony transforms from pleasurable to evasive, becoming the only way for Madame and Donati to not look their situation in the face. There are limits to indirectness because it leaves enough space for other impulses to come in and take over; an empty worldview for an empty world. But those feelings feel so much stronger from their lack of articulation, Ophuls argues that suggestion is so much richer. Twice we see the General walk a woman to the train, the first time to send off his mistress for good with only a meaningless gift, the second, after he’s ended Madame’s affair, sending her away from Donati to recoup; to be trapped. But it’s not a simple juxtaposition between letting go and holding on, the solemn look on his face as he watches Madame’s train leave suggests that he knows he’s already lost her. He’s just emptily repeating rituals of a control he once had, in a different time with a different woman.
Despite Ophuls’ love for the signifiers of extreme wealth, he does give some moments to the workers lower down the class ladder, those who instead of leading pointless lives, just have pointless jobs. A Doorman huffs to his colleague that he won’t open the door the next time the General rushes in and out, but of course he does anyway. Ophuls prods at the social order, but no character has either any interest in changing it, or any idea that such a thing is possible. Despite the fact that both The General and Donati work in politics, their roles seem more ceremonial than anything else. (If the former represents conflict between nations and the latter harmony, one assumes the nations are Man and Woman.) It’s all taken as a given. Politics are more firmly formed than anything else in this world of illusive materialism. Meanwhile, politics and the material world become increasingly irrelevant to Madame. As her affair is collapsing, she tries to distract herself with an extravagant painting of the Battle of Waterloo, its import and drama feel deeply futile. But it’s those social forces that she has to distract herself from in the first place; its presence is clear even when its form is diffuse. It’s like a God reigning over, unseen in all its might.
In the world of Ophuls, politics might be stronger than the actual religion it is supposed to be informed by, in service of. Madame first goes to church to pray for her earrings to be sold, she pays for a prayer candle and quickly crosses herself on the way out; as empty a ritual duty as any other, like a marriage continuing long after all love has died out. Even when she returns to pray in sincerity that Donati survives the duel the General has challenged him to, she’s still only come in her time of need, though maybe it’s less cynical and more like her husband’s desperate reenactment. She doesn’t believe it will work, you can see that in her eyes, but what else is there to do? Either way her prayer goes unanswered. Maybe faith has no impact in this world, maybe God doesn’t exist. Or maybe she’s being punished by another patriarchal force; when she confesses to being guilty only in thoughts, perhaps that’s as guilty as she could possibly be.
Despite how much passion fills Madame when she falls in love, she remains an empty character: emptied by materialism, emptied by love, and finally, emptied by despair. There is a limit to her transformations. When Donati dies it’s as if her feelings are too strong for this formless, insincere world. And so she has to leave it, though maybe she was already half-way there after they had been separated. But then, as we move closely through the church—the final shot showing the spiritual, as the first shot did the material—Ophuls pans down from a statue of a saint to the earrings. In a world where everything changes forms so fluidly, even abstract ideas like irony can turn from intimate to evasive. There has been a genuine and deep transformation; a true rebirth. As God came down to the Earth in human form, the earrings have connected the material and the spiritual, they’ve become more than simply an object, even more than one that accrued so much meaning. In the end
, Ophuls, much like Bresson, reaches the spiritual only through the material, but instead of harshly contrasting blunt images of an empty and dead world, Ophuls shows emptiness in a long take. His camera is like the spirit that moves through this world, giving it the space to breathe and transform, but from a distance that cannot be crossed, except by a miracle.
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