The Earrings of Madame de...
Director: Max Ophüls. Cast: Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio de Sica, Jean Debucourt, Lea di Léo, Mireille Perrey. Screenplay: Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls, and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise de Vilmorin).

Director Max Ophüls, who directed this film as well as the romantic dramas Lola Montes and Letter from an Unknown Woman, is the world cinema's most renowned practitioner of the long tracking shot. His camera proves so nimble at dodging corners, passing through doorways, and surmounting visual obstacles that the film itself feels riveted to its own story, unwilling to blink for even a moment while the often generic stories play out. It is hard to blame Ophüls for such unrelenting fixation on his subjects when they prove as enthralling in their hedonistic conflicts as do the characters of The Earrings of Madame de.... Not quite a costume drama but more tonally varied than most comedies, this film follows a pair of diamond earrings that a debt-laden society woman (Danielle Darrieux) pawns back to the jeweler who made them; they were originally a gift that the lady's husband (Charles Boyer) had commissioned for his wife and given to her the day after their wedding. Fortuitously, the jewels pass through a whole series of hands only to wind back up back in the Countess' possession—though by the time she re-inherits the earrings, the identity of the giver and the stakes of her accepting them have changed drastically. And the cycles of loss and gain, of giving and taking, of sacrifice and selfishness are still far from over.

As renowned a critic as Andrew Sarris has called The Earrings of Madame de... the most perfect film ever made, and indeed, one is hard-put to identify a single shot or narrative move that doesn't add to the movie's sublime roundelay of melodrama, slapstick, morality play, and, almost out of nowhere (but that's a good thing), religious fable. To paraphrase from one of the film's own characters, The Earrings of Madame de... is "only superficially superficial"; the character who seems the most ensconced within a vain, frivolous existence has, by the end of the movie, become a powerful symbol of the glories (and the costs) of material renunciation and self-examination. More than any film I have seen in months, Ophüls' deeply rewarding film crowds its frames and extends its shots until you think you have reached the limit of visual excess—and then his story takes a turn that proves how much about these characters and this story has remained hidden from view, waiting for the right desperate or ecstatic moment in which to show entirely new facets of themselves. A+


Academy Award Nominations (1954):
Best Costume Design: Georges Annenkov & Rosine Delamare

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