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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

(aka: Madame de...)



Reviews and Comments

Max Ophuls' tale of love and jealousy is both visually and emotionally arresting as it penetrates beneath the outer decorum of a society that permits adultery so long as it is without feeling. The impetus for all that occurs is a pair of earrings. They have changed hands twice before the film starts and will change hands about a dozen more times before it ends, though there are fewer owners than this statement suggests. This central conceit takes the form of farce, and indeed the film is frequently funny, but do not be deceived: this is a tragedy of the human heart, first and foremost, and its incompatibility with the society it portrays. But is the problem that the society is too permissive or too restrictive?

The genius of the film is how the significance of the earrings changes. Each change of ownership develops the characters a little more, revealing something new and complicating what we thought we already understood. Ophuls may indeed be denouncing individuals and societies that value appearances above all else, but he's not suggesting that the problem is a simple one to solve. Human nature is complicated and frought with great needs and passions that we struggle just to define, let alone fulfill.

I am probably making the film sound heavier than it really is. It is deep, but not heavy: in fact, this film is deceptively breezy. The romance, the humor, and the beautiful visual touches are all entertaining in a conventional sense. But subtly the film starts demanding more from its audience. It wants us to think about its characters, to empathize with them, and to ponder the human heart. Unusually, in stories about love triangles (or in imprecations of society, for that matter), we empathize with all of the characters. Even when we disagree with their actions, even when we see how their selfishness hurts those around them, we understand what drives them to it and sympathize.