Ahh, the webs we weave. Circa, early 20th century Paris, The Earrings of Madame de… begins with a simple “white lie” told by Madame Louise, a wealthy but bored socialite, to her a seemingly benign husband, a General in the French army, concerning a glamourous pair of earrings. Louise needs to sell them in order to pay off a growing debt. To cover this action, she tells the General the jewels are lost, setting off a brilliant and tangled web of lies and deception that will inevitably affects everyone involved. Narratively, Ophuls stays with the earrings as they change hands from one character to the next. An Italian ambassador named Donati (played by legendary film director Vittorio de Sica) inadvertently buys the earrings, then meets and falls in love with the Madame, sending each character into a furry of heartache caused by the most random chance encounter.
Little lies turn into larger ones, the consequences miniscule at first, but as one would expect, get larger and more life threatening. Madame de.. feels fresh compared to a lot of the modern films labeled as romantic. Ophuls and cameraman Christian Matras immediately create a graceful camera style, namely the opening long take of the Madame deciding what she’s going to sell, finally spying the earrings after a long search; one little decision deciding her fate all in one motion. Also, the script is flat out brilliant, weaving characters in an out of each others lives, breeding tension in the smallest details, never feeling contrived even though it’ so blatantly meant to be. You can’t help but feel sorry for each sucker in Madame de…, even though everyone lies through their teeth as if it were the one common denominator in wealthy Parisian society.
With Madame de… and it’s American counterpart, Letter From an Unknown Woman, director Max Ophuls has crafted probably the best “romantic weepy” double feature ever. Film critic Andrew Sarris called Madame de.. the best film of all time and I can see what he means. A genuine epic romance, the kind filled with chance, deception, lies, and doomed love, the kind they don’t make anymore without dumbing down the story and sentimentalizing the characters. Madame de… remains a masterpiece due to it’s articulation of human weakness, specifically the attempts to solve unrequited love and in turn the daft reactions to seemingly unimportant conflicts, often secretly and inanely underlined by pride and prejudice.