Precious Bodily Fluids

The Earrings of Madame de…: Cyclical Semiotics

It’s unfortunately been awhile since this one. The opening shot is magnificent, panning in a sort of POV way across her wardrobe and accessories, not only foreshadowing subsequent events but defining her in character, values, and fabulousness. None other than Laura Mulvey herself offered some helpful thoughts in Film Quarterly on this one (Summer 2009, Vol. 62, No. 4). Mulvey observes how much of the film is about repetition/return and fetishization. Narrative elements are highly cyclical, particularly the earrings themselves. (Is this where the much cornier Somewhere in Time got its idea from?) Everyone in the film does some fetishizing. The general (Charles Boyer) fetishizes his wife even as, Mulvey notes, he is humanized by his sympathy for Louise. She fetishizes the earrings, but only one they signify the ambassador’s love (Vittorio de Sica) rather than her husband the general’s. Mulvey adeptly shows that in so doing, Louise fails to appreciate the initial symbolic value of the earrings: indicative of her husband’s love for her. When their symbolic power is merely this, she attributes to the earrings only monetary power, selling them in order to pay off her debts. Once they end up symbolizing the ambassador’s love for her, she embraces their symbolic value.

This shifting symbolism behind the earrings illustrates the cyclical nature of the film’s narrative and themes. They originally were a wedding gift from her husband, a token of his love for her at the time of their marital consummation. After Louise sells the earrings, they falls into the ambassador’s hands and, just before his intent to consummate intimate love with Louise, he presents them to her. This is an affront to the general but Louise ignores the insult, devaluing her husband’s love, embracing that of another man, and is thereby dehumanized. Max Ophuls achieves this by positioning Louise between “opposing iconographies of masculinity,” Mulvey explains: “…on the one hand, a ‘feminized’ man, a man who loves love, a ‘womanizer'; on the other hand, a husband who personifies the ‘law,’ a representative of military and aristocratic ‘order.'” The fact that de Sica’s character is an ambassador alludes to a “feminine” character in the same way that the general alludes to a “masculine” one. One is a peacemaker, a diplomat who is trained to see opposing viewpoints; and the other is an aggressor, one who takes the offensive to defeat an opponent. Ophuls exploits the classic love triangle in this way and in so doing displays the complex, dynamic interplay of fetishization, or, the politics of love.

Mulvey also does well to note the narrative progress in the film, and how it slows, pauses, and is threatened at various points by romantic interludes. The most renowned such sequence is the montage of a number of balls, picturing dancing, music, and a “blossoming of bodily and cinematic movement [that] slows down the forward movement of the narrative, suggesting that the ecstasy of love involves slowing and delaying time.” The figure of the general ultimately functions not only as a symbol of law, structure, and order, but an actual intra-cinematic law of narrative conclusion. Whereas the ambassador threatens the narrative, both in terms of slowing it and swaying it away from its lawful, orderly, inevitable conclusion, the general brings things back to the way they should be. Mulvey again: “From this perspective, the guardian of the law also acts as a guardian of narrative development, bringing both its delay and irrational passion back onto a linear path, the end of which will be figured literally and metaphorically by the stop of death.”

Most stills from DVD Beaver.

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This entry was published on October 31, 2010 at 8:24 pm. It’s filed under 1950s Cinema, French Film, Max Ophuls and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “The Earrings of Madame de…: Cyclical Semiotics

  1. Pingback: Eye blog » Critique commentary. Rick Poynor selects some great DVD covers from the Criterion Collection.

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