What a sad, elegant film this is. The Earrings of Madame de... takes us into the fin de siecle Parisian world of the mannered rich, where the act of amorous intimacy is as much an expected social obligation as it is a personal pleasure, where a serious discussion about serious things is considered as indiscrete as loving one's spouse.
"Madame de... is a most elegant lady," we are told, "distinguished, received everywhere. She seemed destined to a delightful, untroubled existence. Doubtless nothing would have happened but for the jewels." She (Danielle Darrieux) is married to the rich and assured General Andre de... (Charles Boyer). When she realizes she has debts she cannot pay and does not want her husband to learn of, she sells a pair of diamond earrings her husband gave her the day after they were married. She tells her husband a little lie, that the earrings were stolen. The jeweler, not knowing of the little lie, soon goes to the general, assuming he will want to buy them back. He does, but rather than embarrass his wife, he gives them to a mistress he is saying farewell to as she departs for Constantinople. And there, she sells the jewels to cover her gambling debts. The jewels soon appear in the window of an elegant Constantinople jewelry store where Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), an Italian diplomat soon on his way to Paris, buys them. And since fate and convenience work in mysterious ways, Donati meets Madame de in Paris and they fall into what passes for love by their class. Donati gives the earrings to Madame de as a sign of his love, not knowing they originally given to her by her husband. And Madame de must now tell a few more little lies. When her husband, the General, sees them, she must tell even more. From a story of amusing deceptions and brilliant social manners, the movie becomes a much darker and sadder story. Donati may be in love, but he understands the limits of their social class. Madame de may be in love, but for the first time in her life she moves beyond those limits. And the General? He may be worldly to a fault, he may even love his wife, but even he cannot accept becoming an object of smiles behind fans without taking some sort of action.
Max Ophuls immediately captures us with the elegance of both his camera and the dialogue, a mix of oblivious self-centeredness and matter-of-fact moral amusement. This was a time, for those who could afford it, before trophy mistresses learned to first demand gold wedding rings, before trophy wives required community property laws, prenuptial agreements and slick lawyers in custom-bought silk suits. Madame de lives in this world and thrives. Her downfall may be the result of the diamond earrings her husband gave her, but it certainly is that she actually fell in love. Not just in love, either, but in love with the memory of love.
What a pleasure it is to see subtle and experienced actors as Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica take their roles and bring them to life in such a way that we are forced to continually readjust our feelings toward their characters. When Boyer as the General comments to his wife that "a liar should have more sangfroid," he manages without effort to show amusement, indulgence, perhaps love, but also a little distaste, all in one line reading. All three expertly show us a class of society it's more satisfying to be amused by than to take seriously, yet all three succeed in making us take their characters not only seriously, but each one with a good deal of sympathy.