Film lovers have long awaited the arrival on DVD of Max Ophuls’ exquisite “The Earrings of Madame De…,” which no less an authority than Andrew Sarris repeatedly dubbed the greatest film of all time — a judgment echoed by other critics and plenty of unpublished movie buffs as well. Now Criterion has answered their prayers, with results both thrilling and disappointing.
Dating from 1953, the apex of Ophuls’ Indian summer, b&w pic tells of a love triangle undone by a pair of diamond earrings — originally a gift from Gen. Andre de… (Charles Boyer) to his wife, Countess Louise de… (Danielle Darrieux), but later fallen into possession of her lover, Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica), and unwittingly returned to her.
But plot is incidental, especially when compared with Ophuls’ astonishing composition — long takes of rich detail lensed with a gossamer touch — and the depth of feeling evinced by the central trio, each perfectly cast in performances they would never top.
Print quality suggests that Criterion’s waiting game was worth it. The transfer is as sparkling as the film’s eponymous earrings. Yet less-than-stellar extras make one dream of what might have been. Inexplicably absent is an interview with the radiant Darrieux, who is still acting.
Compounding that absence is a ponderous audio commentary by academics Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar that offers more Freudian analysis than insight into Ophuls’ art. Even more annoying is the clumsy video introduction by Paul Thomas Anderson, who comments imprecisely on the helmer’s impact.
Not all the supplements rep missed opportunities. Tag Gallagher’s detailed visual analyses of key scenes may be too didactic for casual viewers but will delight cinema geeks. Better still is a 25-minute conversation from 2005 with the pic’s assistant director, Alain Jessua. It’s buttressed by interviews from 1989 with co-writer Annette Wademant and assistant decorator Marc Frederix.
There’s also a 1965 TV interview with author Louise de Vilmorin, literally wielding a switch as she vehemently denounces Ophuls’ adaptation of her novella. Viewers can judge for themselves, as the handsome package is capped by a copy of her book, along with a thoughtful essay by critic Molly Haskell, who happens to be Mrs. Andrew Sarris.
Criterion has also released in tandem with “Earrings” two other Ophuls masterpieces from the period: “La Ronde” (1950) based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play, and “Le Plaisir” (1952), based on three Guy de Maupassant stories. Both pics boast stellar casts, including Darrieux, and are transferred with Criterion’s customary care.
But once again, the extras could be better, as Todd Haynes’ vague intro to “Le Plaisir” proves all too well.