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The Earrings of Madame de ...

Film Review: The Earrings of Madame de.. by Max Ophüls

By Adrienne Benassy



Paris 1890. Pressured by debt, Madame de…, the coquette and frivolous wife of a general of the War Ministry, secretly sells the earrings he gave her. A few days later, during a reception at the Opera, she pretends she has lost them. The rumour makes the headlines, but the jeweller, frightened of what could trigger this scandal, confesses to the general andd tells him what really happened: his wife sold him her earrings.+


Madame de...
Madame de...

The general buys them back but this time, he gives them to his mistress, who subsequently sells them to the Baron Donati in Constantinople. The latter is nominated ambassador in Paris and falls for Madame de.. at first sight. Madame de… fakes a surprise when he offers the earrings and pretends she has never seen them before.


Madame de... & Le Baron Donati
Madame de... & The Baron Donati

Profoundly in love, Madame de… cannot handle her feelings and travels to forget this affair with the Baron Donati, in vain. Back in Paris, she wears the famous earrings, lies to her husband saying she suddenly found them. Outraged by his wife’s attitude, the general tells the truth to the Baron, confessing that he first bought these earrings. Not only does the Baron refuse to see Madame de… ever again but the general forces her to give her earrings to a niece. But the later sells them and Madame de… buys them again. She falls into a strong illness of which the general cannot get her out. Furious, he provokes the Baron Donati in a duel and kills him. Madame de…, who came to spy them, understands what happened and dies of a heart attack.


Le général durant le duel
The General during the duel


Madame de…is first and foremost a perfectly structured movie, combining a splendidly complex cinematic plot with the depth of the original work. The stunning earrings fuel the intrigue, as they are sought-after by various characters. The questions they raise fuel a dramatic tension that makes the imbroglio very poignant and maintains the audience’s attention. Furthermore, this dramatic turn is intensified by the use of beautifully written dialogue, which enhances the language and gives a very "fin-de-siècle aristocracy" feeling to the whole movie.

Madame de…also depicts with a delicately humorous touch the frivolities of French late XIX century. Set within the diplomatic sphere, the movie is a window into this mundane world. Balls, champagne, glamorous dresses, precious jewellery, state affairs, the characters indulge in the pleasures of a cosmopolitan circle. Men, like the Baron Donati fall for frivolous and coquette women. The latter believe in diamonds. Madame de… maintains an absurd fascination for the earrings, cherishing them more than the men that gave them to her.

Depicting fin-de-siècle frivolities is a way, for Max Ophüls to expose his vision of happiness as a transitory and illusionary pleasure, a recurring theme in his filmography. Madame de… ‘s happiness relies on lies. Lying to her husband, to her lover, until the truth beaks through. Everything evaporates, she falls into a depression and dies of pain when her lover is killed. 

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