Max Ophuls’ luxuriantly mordant elegy The Earrings of Madame de … is, above all, a deeply generous film to its audience. Admittedly, it’s something scathing screenplay might suggest otherwise, and some of the most carnivorously self-devouring mise en scene in the entire history of cinema adds insult to injury for an audience expecting the formal niceties of realism. But Ophuls’ film, as deliriously dense as it is, doesn’t ask us to guess. Ophuls was a fervent maximalist of an auteur, gripping the screen in his haughty, hyperbolic hand and refusing to let go, but he was not vicious to his audience. His 1953 film is a formal masterpiece of gleeful clockwork where every slice of the cinema, every ounce of the frame, is carefully calibrated and painstakingly repurposed for the audience to dance with, but he lets us have his purpose in a handbasket right from the opening scene.
Scratch that: he even gives himself away from his title, front-loaded with the materiality of the earrings and the social title of madame and running off into the night before the actual humanity of the main character’s name can be whispered. The title tells all in a film about people devoured by the objects, both physical and cultural, they shield themselves with; the rituals of the aristocracy coalesce into a smothering masquerade of overbearing everyday formality. Ophuls himself recasts the sumptuously elegant, cluttered formalism of early sound masters like Ernst Lubitsch for a bitterly contrarian dissection of the internal materialism of the soul rendered as the film’s characters would want it: externalized and slathered about the screen in garish strokes. We never learn the last name of the film’s main character; like the title, she’s too busy being drowned out by her social stature, not to mention her earrings.
Fittingly, we meet Louise (Danielle Darrieux) through the prism of her possessions, which are legion in quantity and grossly ornamented in stature. Louise obliquely tasks herself with deciding which of her possessions to give away to pay for her debts – a socialite by trade, her expenditures have garishly overpowered and exceeded her allowance – but the roll call of luxuries feels more like a gleeful, preordained morning ritual of self-aggrandizement than a pragmatic happenstance brought on by adversity. The real purpose of the deliberately presentational gesture, with each object of wealth positioned squarely in front of the camera as it glides along the monumental, titanic conglomerate of opulence carted out before us, is for Louise to remind herself of her sanity, to escape the moment of crisis epitomized in the selling of the earrings with the perpetual shield of wealth she still owns. We get the sense she’s showing off to the audience, as if she knows they’re looking, and reminding us that she’ll be okay after all. The earrings are but a paltry sum, one forgotten smidgen in a pointillist collage of affluence.
For Louise, there’s always an audience; as a society lady of Paris, she’s been lectured and finished on the diction and dialect of propriety and the lexicon of self-preservation through self-presentation. For her, privacy is a lost cause; even in waiting, as in the opening, it is as if she is being watched, and she acts as if her soul and her social stature are not only on the line but one in the same. Throughout the rest of the film, the wealth-adoring Ophuls turns his own obsessions into a scabrous self-critique, running his characters through the gamut of their overpowering self-constructed spaces. They are dwarfed by the lushness of the mise en scene, with the surfeit of external indicators sucking their internal selves dry and exposing the frailty and lacking in their inner lives.
The mansion occupied, barely, by Louise and her husband Andre (Charles Boyer) not only haunts their inadequacies as lovers but forces them to work for it: nearly everywhere they go, the camera follows as if lashing them forward with the whip of sheer expanse. As gilded as the mansion is, the overpowering sense of it in the film is a tired, and tiring, jungle where a mere trip from room to room is an adventure fraught with lurking peril. We don’t cut from room to room; we are made to understand the domineering, dictatorial nature of the wealth and how it separates the people within from one another, asking them to slash through a forest of earnings to find another human to talk to. Although the couple is married and exercises an utmost gentility to each other, they sleep in different rooms, and a vicious early sequence could not emphasize the daunting, despondent space between them more vigorously. Merely conversing is a struggle. And don’t even think about trying to reach the light switches.
Public spaces are adventures of their own, but they are a new land where each embroidered slice of affluence is replaced with a fleshy human body, the conglomerate of which forms its own chaotic space Louise must press through nonetheless. People trap her as she strides past them like unmentionable nothings; they are objects to be avoided, not subjects to be accepted or acknowledged. The first genuine conversation in the film, the earliest moment of genuine warmth on her part, entails a chance meeting brought on by a carriage accident. It’s a thoroughly European scene, almost a mockery of the gentility and social foppery of post-war British romance, with the two always cordoned off and sequestered away from one another via the prison wall of the covered carriage – a transportation device utilized by the wealthy to allow them just enough of a peek outward to know their perceived lesser beings without actually having to confront them.
The scene concludes with an opportunity for Louise to personify herself to the man, the Italian baron Fabrizio Donati (neo-realist progenitor Vittorio De Sica, acting in a film that is the diametric opposite of his improvisational slice-of-life dramas of the impoverished). But she is denied; as if on cue, right as she is about to name herself, to confront this man as person rather than as titled nobility, her carriage whisks her away, further secluding her in an asocial prison and rejecting her internal desire for something more. She announces what he already knows: her title, her aristocratic status. But he cannot hear her name, her person-hood.
This is a simple, whimsical gesture on Ophuls part, but one that runs right to the core of a deceptively devastating study of humans longing for escape amidst a world they’ve constructed for themselves almost out of habit. Throughout the film, the aural and visual ornamentation of the aristocracy overpowers the everyday humanity of the name, with the mise en scene literally invading the frame, jutting out to overtake the written last name in at least one scene and leaving Louise partially unknowable to us, the audience, and to her husband. The bond they ought to share, epitomized in the harmony of a shared surname, is denied them, and denied us. The film makes it clear, heartbreakingly so, that all they really share is a mansion, and the choking chill of its overstuffed internal organs.
Now, there is hope skulking somewhere between the diamond mirror and the gilded staircase, the hope of imaginative connection and escape within the otherwise crushing artifice of social convention. Just as the mise-en-scene furnishes the trappings of wealth upon which the characters free themselves only to choke the characters in their earnings, Ophul’s famed camera movement is similarly conflicted and polyvalent. As if in a liminal zone between Hitchcock/Lang and Renoir, the camera’s near-constant motion not only ensnares the characters in a tornado of otherworldly malevolence they can’t escape from. Contrarily and dialectically, it also liberates them from social convention by unmooring them from the static world they hope to escape from. The camera channels their individual and collective imaginative effervescence into an externalized whirlygust of movement, energy, and human possibility. It’s as though the camera searches with their imaginations for something new, whipped up in their minds and possibly encasing them in their own inability to stop and notice the fragility and frailty of the imagination that absolves them of the turmoil of the world only to provide them an alibi from having to debate with that world and their own privilege. The characters always dreaming and arguably doomed by their dreams, the camera both flies with their fancy and necessarily defeats them from ever landing with their feet on the ground.