In 'Earrings,' familiar romantic conspiracy and rituals but in black and white

November 12, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Like a bad penny, Madame De . . 's earrings keep coming back to her, each time bearing with them a whole new set of lies, deceptions and conspiracies, many of which the Madame herself has concocted.

The two diamond danglers are the centerpiece of this swanky and sophisticated entertainment that hails from the far-ago year of 1953, one of the last films of the legendary Max Ophuls, cinema genius and big-time romantic fool. If Ophuls is remembered at all today, it is as the father of the great documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls ("The Sorrow and the Pity"), but in his own time the old man was one of the great celebrators of the conflicting desires of flesh and brain.

The Charles is bringing this lost work back for a weekend on the premise that it will attract some of the audience that made a hit of Martin Scorsese's "Age of Innocence." The two works bear some resemblance: Both are about loves that are heartfelt but stillborn because the lovers are so locked into a powerful social order. Both are full of yearning and repression, and fleeting looks and furtive touchings that must stand for the more elemental sorts of lovemaking. Finally, both are full of a social universe at a legendary time in the past: Belle Epoque Paris for "Earrings," New York in the 1870s for "Age." Similar rituals fill them: parties, dances, the opera, a sense of a seething life around them.

But fans of "Age" will certainly be somewhat disappointed to learn that "Earrings," for all the sumptuousness of its setting, is a black and white movie and can't begin to compare visually to the sheer beauty of "Age," which is a large part of its appeal. And Ophuls, though he's known as a master of camera movement, can't begin to compare to the dynamic pirouettes of Scorsese, who bounces the camera around like a basketball during a fast break.

Actually, the film reminded me far more of "Dangerous Liaisons," with its welter of romantic conspiracies and its fundamentally cynical view of romance. The beautiful Danielle Darrieux plays a general's pampered wife used to amusing herself with suitors while remaining technically faithful to her husband, Charles Boyer.

Alas, when she meets Vittorio De Sica it's the real thing, and the two begin a furtive relationship. The symbol of all these comings and goings are the earrings, which pass between husband, wife and would-be lover with clever intricacy.

One amazement: The movie reminds one of how charming and commanding an actor Charles Boyer was. As the general who protects his marriage less out of love than out of a rigid belief in maintaining social order, he's brilliant -- commandering, shrewd, sophisticated, unflappably regal.

And one confusion: The movie goes to a great deal of effort to conceal Madame De . . .'s last name. Maybe je suis stupide, but this struck me as a fairly pointless conceit.

"The Earrings of Madame De . . ."

Starring Danielle Darrieux and Charles Boyer

Directed by Max Ophuls

Released by Gaumont

Unrated

***

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