Can frivolity be tragic? Your answer to that question will go a long way to predict how you will react to The Earrings of Madame de…. A Gilded Age love triangle set in the lushest of French upper class settings, the film’s light irony initially charms with the alluring, if somewhat vapid Countess Louise (Danielle Darrieux) as she falls hopelessly in love with Baron Donati (Vittorio de Sica). The eponymous earrings are literally the first thing we see as Louise grapples with how to pay some secret debts. A gift from her husband the General (Charles Boyer), the earrings repeatedly crop up like bad pennies or impish reminders of who is deceiving whom.
The setup may well turn off anyone who believes the wiles of the pampered cannot be profound, and to be sure, Louise’s antics threaten to wear thin. Instead, something interesting happens. While all three are quite open about the blooming romance, when the General realizes Louise has really fallen in love with Donati, he could be describing the film itself when he tells his wife they are only “superficially superficial.” He discovers depths in himself and Louise which guarantee an ending deserving of that oft-cheapened and abused description of “tragic.”
Amidst the aristocratic luxury, a few working class characters (chiefly servants) work like a chorus to give director Max Ophuls a way to demonstrate how love chastens even the most sophisticated. His wry ironies are executed with enviable insouciance, as the camera glides around the central characters in bravura disdain for the ordinary. It is as if he were asking in mock modesty “You mean not everyone can do this?” before moving on to astonish repeatedly. In an extended sequence showing the Countess and Baron falling in love, for example, one scene follows another as they dance, then dance again, and yet again, the camera twirling with and around them between countless costumed extras, keeping the couple framed while “casually” catching background action to add to the sense of presence, lifting our spirits on a cloud of physical exhilaration that mirrors the characters’ heightening desires.
Nonetheless, while the Countess may initiate the action, the General makes the film much more than a delectable bon-bon. Ready with a polished witticism for every situation, he makes the biggest error he could: he loves his wife. And as he struggles to hold on to her, he succeeds only in pushing her into Donati’s arms. It is his realization that politesse is not enough to insure happiness that turns The Earrings of Madame de… into something more resonant than it might first seem to offer. It is too intoxicating, too obviously evidence of the limits of self-control, in a word too tempting to overcome the resistance of those determined to moralize. But for anyone with a trace of sympathy for human frailty or the riches of life and cinema, the film is a sensuous reminder of the charms and pitfalls of emotional complexity.