Most anything you need to know about human nature when it comes to love, jealousy, and the power of lust can be found within this most treasured of Max Ophuls’ works. On its surface, it is as simple as the given appearance of any love affair, as a bored wife whose marriage has grown distant becomes drawn to a handsome stranger. Just as it is with any relationship, it becomes more complicated when you look beyond, and connect with the characters. Though Ophuls is most renowned for his virtuoso shots where the camera whirls as if in a feverish haze, what he truly does best is get the viewer involved. To sit in the audience of La Ronde or Lola Montes is a misnomer; you find your self on stage, caught up in the dance. The artifice is made plain, as if you were a part of the writing of the work; the acting is naturalistic, as if they were speaking plainly to you as well; the direction is precise with a casual touch, and the circle in which the characters dance comes to encompass you, and so you are one with the rhythms of the work.
The three main characters are the General, the Baron, and Madame. There are some names (excepting our heroine, the reasons for which are left up to the audience), but they are types, and who needs names with this sort of thing anyway? The General is a powerful man, and carries the respect his position demands like one of many medals on his chest. He and his wife, Madame, are wealthy, comfortable, and pampered as though all the world was a cushion. These people would seem so removed from the lives that normal people live that there should be a danger of being distant to the point of irrelevance. Even so, Ophuls’ touch is so light that the financial gulf does not matter. That, and the titular earrings are made into a symbol of how we value the things in our life. They were a wedding gift for Madame from her husband, and she is selling them at a discount to cover her extravagant lifestyle. They are worth very little to her, in a fine comment upon the complacency of marriage. Her husband is made aware of this, and so repurchases them, only to give them away even more carelessly to a lover who is on her way out of his life. They are passed along like a meaningless bauble.
Then, the Baron enters our story. Played with the very definition of class by Vittorio de Sica (the man could take a shit and somehow make it seem classy), he buys the earrings from a busker in the streets of Morocco. “I did not know who I had bought them for yet” he states later, epitomizing the boundless optimism of the hopeless romantic. And so he meets Madame as their carriage wheels lock, a traumatic beginning for what would become a tumultuous love that would become their prison. When he gives Madame the earrings she so lifelessly disposed of earlier, they have acquired all the meaning in the world. Strange how such an object changes in meaning depending on whom it was acquired from, when, and why. This subject is the focus of Summer Hours, and if it was influenced by The Earrings of Madame de…, then it is truly a pedigree of quality. They spend time together, they dance, endlessly it would seem in a sequence where the Baron remarks it has been days, then hours since they had seen each other last. Surely other words pass between them, but the time is what has truly solidified the attraction, this moment in time. The Earrings appear to have bottled this lightning, and she is willing to shed all earthly possessions, and risk no harm to them. The General has not been blind to this infatuation, and it is when the Earrings resurface that he realizes it is no passing emotion.
The inherent value in objects – or lack thereof – is one of many aspects that make this work a universal one, and so the gap between the wealthy subjects and the more than likely lower to middle class viewer ceases to matter. The things we accumulate in life, for better or worse, help define us as individuals. If you are superficial, then only the appearance of wealth is necessary for an object to have value for you. Perhaps the objects in your house appeal to you as pieces of art, or remind you of someone or something of great importance to you at some point. Or maybe you are not aware of the meaning of these things. And when you die, the meaning of them dies with you. In a way, people are objects along these lines. The General certainly considers his wife an ostentatious decoration, and his jealousy toward the Baron is hardly based on moral indignation. His possession has taken flight, and in public fashion.
Proper treatment of one’s belongings is a practical quality; the General in this story is the only practical character. He observes the accepted behaviors of the day, and remains within his appointed social moorings. Though he has an affair, he keeps it discreet; the order is kept. His wife and the Baron, on the other hand, are wildly impractical, making a rather public display of themselves as they careen into love with abandon. The General even offers the Baron some rather friendly and astute advice on keeping such things tidy in the eye of society. But the lovers can hardly be bothered to adhere to rules they do not value. Such is the mysterious nature of love, in that it compels people to lose their minds and pay little heed to their own sanity or safety. When the time comes to provide closure to our story, the characters involved do what they must, carrying out their proscribed roles to whatever end. Stubbornness and inflexibility are among many traits that make this species a curious one, and impossible to truly understand.
For these reasons, The Earrings of Madame de… is endlessly rewatchable and timeless. If ever there were a selection of films that would start a person on the journey of coming to terms with the elusive qualities of human nature, this one would occupy a position near the top. We see ourselves in the players of the story, and were we to inhabit their roles, it is doubtful we would behave with much of a difference in the outcome.