More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones, Saint Teresa of Avila reputedly opined, but she never met Louise, Madame de... (Danielle Darrieux). For the vain, tragic heroine of Max Ophuls' "The Earrings of Madame de..." (1953), the price of a direct line to the heavens comes in a foreign currency.
Foreign to her, at least: in church to pray that her jeweler will accept the titular earrings (a wedding gift from her husband) in return for some much-needed cash, Madame de... hurries through her rote offering as though she read about it in an instruction manual. She's more adept at measuring other rates of exchange, assessing the value of furs and the cost of flirtations, feigning a woozy spell in the jeweler's office to make the deal stick. "After all, they're mine," she says of her baubles. "I can do with them as I please."
Or so she thinks. I've always loved "The Earrings of Madame de..." because it resembles a Vegas magician's grand illusions, all mirror images and sleights of hand. Though Madame de... won't know it for some time, her prayer falls on deaf ears. The jeweler returns the earrings to her husband (Charles Boyer), who presents them as a parting gift to his mistress, who pawns them to a dealer in Constantinople, who sells them to Baron Fabrizio Donati, the Italian ambassador (played by "Bicycle Thieves" director Vittorio de Sica), who bestows them upon the woman he loves -- none other than Madame de... herself. Built from the scaffolding of outlays and receipts, credits and debts, Ophuls' masterpiece turns on the cruel and unpredictable exigencies of another marketplace: the human heart.
With Criterion's new Blu-ray edition of the film, featuring a restored, high-definition digital transfer and an introduction by Paul Thomas Anderson (watch below), it is clear that the six decades since its release have not rendered Ophuls' graceful, fluid aesthetic any less impressive. A gorgeous, waltzing montage seamlessly traces the development of Madame and the baron's chaste affair, while the shreds of her unsent letters from abroad, written and torn up after she becomes an object of scandal, melt seamlessly into Alpine snows.
But, as Molly Haskell argues in her accompanying essay, from 2008, "The Earrings of Madame de..." remains more the object of cult obsession than universal admiration, the victim of its early typecasting as a "woman's film" -- an appellation, Haskell points out, that's too simple for Ophuls' complex dissection of gender roles and romantic conventions. And lest you think the under-appreciation of female-centered stories died with Women's Lib, consider Emily Nussbaum's jab at the phenomenon, published last week. From "The Godfather" to 'Breaking Bad," the "serious" and the "great" still come mostly attached to swinging dicks.
Even if we take the canon on its own terms, however, "The Earrings of Madame de..." would seem to mark an important turning point. Truffaut, one of the art form's most perceptive critics and most revered practitioners, recognized it as such: in his famous takedown of French film's portly, verbose "Tradition of Quality," published in 1954, he called the "direction of the actors" in "The Earrings of Madame de..." one of the few "audacities" in recent French cinema. Let me go one further: the film's most audacious gambit is attacking the "Tradition of Quality" from within.
"The Earrings of Madame de..." mirrors the staid opulence and literary provenance of the "closed worlds, barricaded by formulas," that Truffaut so despised. But Ophuls uses that resemblance to critique the world of surfaces and superficiality. Seen with new eyes, the earrings Madame de... once sold for a song become priceless. Her prayers ring sincere, and her emotions run far deeper than mere reflections. We might even call her the Truffaut of Belle Epoque femininity, the new woman before the New Wave: learning the hard limits of tradition all too well, even as she begins to understand quality by a different measure.
"The Earrings of Madame de..." is now on Blu-ray ($39.95) from the Criterion Collection. The film is also available on DVD, iTunes, and Hulu Plus.