A rich history of mythology surrounds jewelry. With wear, a piece often comes to signify events—escape from debt, a lover’s last embrace. Personal history accumulates. Value shifts. Such a conversion occurs in The Earrings of Madame de... as the unwanted-turned-indispensable diamond earrings pass from scene to scene, gathering, as novelist Alexander Chee suggested recently, a “talismanic, magic quality.”
On March 2, Alexander Chee introduced Max Ophüls’s opulent The Earrings of Madame de... as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Print Screenseries. “When I was invited to do this I accepted, I think, probably within minutes of being asked,” said Chee, whose new novel, The Queen of the Night, came out in February to high praise. “It was the most exciting possibility it seemed to me, to be able to present a film that had helped inspire the novel.”
While researching the novel, a friend casually recommended that Chee watch the film. “What struck me first was the remarkable economy of the entire film that is created out of these earrings and the way in which they operate so elegantly as a device for the story,” recalled Chee. “They consistently pull the dramatic irony of the story taut. Again and again and again, all the way through to the end.”
Starting with Louise’s initial pawn of the earrings to cover debt, the earrings change hands several times over the course of the film, passing from lover to lover, until Louise finally buys them back in a fit of desperation. With each reappearance of the earrings, the characters’ orientation to each other shifts and the earrings take on deeper meaning.
This fundamental structure of the film, built from the fable-like attachment of fate to the earrings, finds its mirror in Chee’s use of jewelry as a framing device. “In my own novel, there is a rose brooch that she gets early on in her life that she loses, and it comes back to her. When it comes back to her it means something. And only she knows what it means. No one else does.”
In an interview before the screening, Chee gave context to myth. “Way back behind all these jewels is a story about a pair of slippers,” Chee explained. The slippers belonged to Heinrich Zimmer’s Abu Kassem from The King and the Corpse. In the story, Kassem tries to get rid of a pair of worn-out slippers, but with each attempt to discard them, they come back, seemingly on their own accord. Like the ballet slippers in The Snow Queen, the slippers cannot be shed because they become a part of him. In the same way, the earrings in Madame de… are part of Louise; after all, madam and diamond share the same Aryan root, dam. By externalizing a part of Louise in the earrings, the film suggests a destiny formed by the values of society at that time.
The politics of the belle époque period inform jewelry’s function in both the film and the novel. “Jewelry was more than just a way of showing off your wealth,” Chee said, continuing, “it was a way of communicating and could be a way of communicating a lot more than you hoped actually. A way of betraying yourself.” Indeed, Louise is constantly betraying herself, albeit unknowingly. Her little white lies about the earrings (“I just lost them. It’s all my fault.”) prove to be her undoing because the earrings have already revealed the truth to the general, the lover, and the audience, all without saying a word.
“One of the beautiful things about this film tonight is that it’s a wonderful study of the manners of the time. It’s also a wonderful piece of historical fiction in itself,” said Chee prior to the screening. An image of an image, both the film and the novel portray the past in a way that cannot help but to reflect the present. “In prose and in film, you are looking for an idiom that is suggestive of the past but isn’t so overwhelming a recreation of the past that the reader or viewer is alienated,” said Chee in response to a question about historical fiction towards the end of the night. “It’s a little bit of a brothel trick,” adding, with affection, “the flash of garter that tells you that the maid is actually a whore.”
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s next Print Screen event will take place on April 18, with Jacob Wren presenting Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up. A discussion and book signing will follow the screening.