The acknowledged masterpiece of director Max Ophüls, the 1953 French drama “Madame de…” was, for some bizarre reason, re-titled for English-speaking audiences as “The Earrings of Madame de…” To my mind, this new title does not make any clearer exactly who Madame is than did the original, but I am not a Hollywood distribution executive, either. In any case, call it what you will, the film is worth a look but is ultimately a great disappointment.
Danielle Darrieux plays the title character, a fashionable, spoiled but socially popular countess in 19th century Paris. Her husband the count, played by Charles Boyer, is a general in the French army. He tolerates his wife’s frivolities and expenditures, even her many male admirers, but only up to a point. Her social success is a reflection of his, and he indulges her somewhat like a pet poodle in order to cement his own popularity. It also allows him time to keep a mistress.
However the tables are soon turned, and the count’s mistress heads off to Constantinople, while the countess takes up with an Italian diplomat, played by the great Italian director Vittorio De Sica. In all honesty, I had never realized De Sica was an actor, despite having enjoyed a number of his Italian neo-realist films. (This of course demonstrates how much one needs to learn about European cinema.)
Like a combination of Maupassant and Tolstoy, but without the cunning of the former or the emotional depth of the latter, “Madame de…” vacillates between frothy love story, domestic comedy, soap opera, and morality tale, without ever seeming to find a soul. The story herein is nothing that a reasonably well-read person has not seen before, in “Camille” or “Madame Bovary” or “La femme abandonnée”. Indeed, even its ending, where Madame offers her infamous earrings as a gift to St. Geneviève, lacks spiritual depth: what exactly is she sacrificing? Does she really expect the Patroness of Paris to intercede so she can continue to commit adultery?
Certainly the performances here are very good and, for the most part, believable. The cinematography, particularly some of the tracking shots, is worth closer study by anyone interested in how beautifully old films of this type used to be made. There are even some very funny lines, and the viewer would be forgiven for thinking, at least in the first third of the film, that they were about to see a romantic comedy. Boyer in particular has some great dialogue, when speaking with his contemporaries and also in dealing with a persistent jewel merchant who finds himself having to sell and re-sell the same earrings to the General for most of the course of the film.
Unfortunately, none of this makes up for a script that starts out well, but ends in an unbelievable, rushed and cliched mess. The result is something like a high school dinner theatre production of “Anna Karenina”, so much so that I found myself – not unlike last weekend – counting the minutes left on the timer until everyone would be dead. The play’s the thing, after all, and if the play is no good, then having great lighting, sets, and actors is only going to take you so far. Fans of French cinema should see this film, but the high ratings which it has universally received simply are not deserved.