The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

Directed by Max Ophüls

In France of the late 19th century, the wife of a wealthy general, the Countess Louise, sells the earrings her husband gave her on their wedding day to pay off debts; she claims to have lost them. Her husband quickly learns of the deceit, which is the beginning of many tragic misunderstandings, all involving the earrings, the general, the countess, & her new lover, the Italian Baron Donati.

Back in the eighteenth century, there was a fashionable genre of novel called the "it narrative", which followed an item around society (such as Hackney carriage or a coin) in order to comment, invariably satirically, on different social classes and contemporary ideas of modernity. Sometimes called a novel of circulation, The Earrings of Madame de... gains even more layers of interest when viewed with this historical telescoping effect, for its post-WW2 nostalgia for the nineteenth-century Belle Époque is, in itself, looking even back to a genre popular in the eighteenth.


The so-called serious man is really futile, because he accepts ready-made justifications for his life; whereas a passionate and profound woman revises established values from moment to moment. She knows the constant tension of unsupported freedom; it puts her in constant danger; she can win or lose all in an instant. It is the anxious assumption of this risk that gives her story the colors of a heroic adventure. And the stakes are the highest there are: the very meaning of existence.

— Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex


[For Ophuls,] the roving camera and the visual glissandos were never virtuoso flourishes for their own sake; they were always attached to the movements of characters and revelatory of the movements of their souls.

Molly Haskell (Criterion)