"Coincidence is only extraordinary because it's so natural," a character says near the end of director Max Ophüls' graceful, deceptively tragic late-career masterpiece. It's a line that could effectively double as the movie's mantra: Following a pair of precious jewels as they go from hand to hand to hand before ending up back on the earlobes of their original owner The Earrings of Madame De... is an effortlessly plotted tale of lust, longing and avarice. It's the kind of lush, dreamy tragedy that will satisfy the most die-hard romantics, even as it undercuts all the swooning desire with a scathing indictment of the upper class.
This is the movie that Sofia Coppola should've studied before she committed the pretty, vacant Marie Antoinette to film. Starting as a comedy of high-class manners set in 19th century France and ending as something far more subversive an allegorical critique of sociopolitical status Earrings is one of those rare instances of a simple historical story, told and performed so well that it transcends any polite genre label you could foist upon it.
Ophüls finds a style and tone perfectly suited to his screenplay. Opening on its title character's hand as she flits through her cavernous wardrobe looking for just the right outfit to wear for the day, the director introduces us to a world where impressions are everything and more importantly, a world where those impressions can be picked and chosen as easily as you would an article of clothing. The fickle Madame Louise (Danielle Derrieux) her last name is never mentioned is eager to pawn off a pair of heart-designed diamond earrings, and the jeweler who sold them to her husband, General Andre (Charles Boyer), is more than happy to buy them back. When her white lie turns into a full-blown robbery accusation, however, the jeweler feels compelled to tell the General about his wife's deception.
Thus begins a connect-the-dots game of possession, loss and reunion, in which the Madame herself is used as a pawn between her husband and an altruistic Italian Count (Vittorio De Sica), with whom she begins an arm's-length love affair. As the earrings fall into and out of the possession of the main characters, they become a symbol as portentous and ultimately as empty as the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, an object to which the characters in the film assign significance whenever they need to. Even when the film is at its most swooning marvel at the way the Madame's torn-up love letters transition into a scene of gently falling snow you get the feeling that her affair with the count is precious to her just because it's something she knows she can never have.
And Ophuls never lets you forget the ushers, shopboys, maids and servants who tend to these fabulously wealthy people: They're there at the front of every gorgeously composed frame, opening and closing doors and then offering cutting remarks just out of earshot. Along with Jean Renoir or Robert Altman (on a good day), he's one of the most democratic directors ever. You get the feeling that any character who glides across the screen could, without notice, commandeer the film: When we're introduced to the General's mistress (the deliciously trampy Lia Di Leo), she literally walks off with the storyline, taking an unexpected detour to Constantinople to booze it up at the casino and pawn the earrings for more chips on the roulette wheel (her chosen number being, not coincidentally, 13).
You can see Ophüls' influence on everyone from Martin Scorsese to the aforementioned Altman, as his incredibly mobile camera glides in and out of rooms, up flights of stairs and through windows the technique on display here is something we've seen so much in the last 50 years, directors have begun to take it for granted (Smokin' Aces, anyone?). But one of the joys of Earrings is that it's not only film-geeks who can sit back and get lost in the commanding, natural manner of the director's storytelling: Even as it leaves questions deliberately unanswered and emotions crushingly unresolved, it's hard not to walk out of Earrings feeling strangely satisfied.Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 6-7, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 8.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.