Life Has a Funny Way: Tragicomedy and The Earrings of Madame de…

| Courtney Kowalke |

black-and-white image of a light-haired woman looking in a mirror and putting on earrings

Image sourced from The Sanity Clause

The Earrings of Madame De… plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, June 16th, through Tuesday, June 18th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.


The adage “Comedy equals tragedy plus time” doesn’t really hold true for The Earrings of Madame de… (1958). In one early scene, aristocratic main character Louise (Danielle Darrieux) lies to her husband about losing the titular earrings while attending an opera. In truth, Louise has sold these earrings back to their original jeweler for money to pay off some debts. Louise’s husband, André, is a high-ranking French army general, and the pair of them own a manor with several servants. Convinced Louise misplaced the earrings at home, André rouses all of the aforementioned servants in the middle of the night to look for the jewelry. One of the servants grumbles that they’re a cook; they’re not paid enough for this type of grunt-work. I laughed. Another servant reminds the cook that if he doesn’t search like André demands, he will be blamed for the earrings’ disappearance. Suddenly, I was horrified. I, as an outsider, know Louise didn’t lose those earrings. I know she’s lying and this is a silly wild goose chase for earrings that are perfectly safe. But suddenly, a lower-class person’s livelihood is being threatened for something trivial and ultimately fake.

This exchange takes place in less than a minute, but I am still thinking about it weeks later. It never returned to being funny to me. The mood of a scene can change in an instant in The Earrings of Madame de… The twists of fate in the plot of this film are fast and sharp.

In a letter dated April 14, 1889, English writer Thomas Hardy noted, “All comedy, is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it.”1 I believe this quote is much more applicable to The Earrings of Madame de… (and much easier to source, too).2 The Earrings of Madame de… could be a comedy of coincidences. It could be, but it isn’t. Things spiral out in a way that is funny but also eerie.

Feeling guilty after learning about the search for Louise’s earrings, the jeweler Monsieur Rémy (Jean Debucourt) returns the earrings not to Louise, but to André. Rémy also reveals that Louise sold them to him. Rather than tell his wife he knows the truth, André gives the earrings to his mistress, Lola (Lia Di Leo), who is leaving for Constantinople. When he notices her train compartment is number thirteen, André remarks that he hopes thirteen is a lucky number for her.

It is not. Lola is promptly shown gambling, betting everything she has on number thirteen in roulette. I was thinking of André’s light-hearted words the whole time I watched Lola lose. It’s darkly comedic that something as innocent as saying, “This number could be lucky for you” could lead to somebody’s financial ruin.

Despite being separated by 1700 miles and never having met the other woman, Lola inadvertently copies Louise and sells the earrings to pay off her debts. The earrings are then purchased from a pawn shop by the Italian baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica). Donati is a diplomat on his way to Paris; once there Donati runs into Louise once at Customs, once in a carriage accident, and finally at a ball. The pair decide their meeting is fate. If it truly was fate that brought them together. The universe has one messed-up sense of humor.

black-and-white image of a light-haired white woman walking beside a gray-haired white man

Image sourced from Internet Movie Database

Louise and Donati quickly develop romantic feelings for each other. With André out of the country on business, the pair dance and flirt their way through several public balls. At the last one shown, Louise and Donati are the last couple on the floor, with even several of the band’s musicians leaving before them. The tableau is funny on the face of it—everyone else is long gone. Louise and Donati are both wearing their overcoats like they started preparing to leave as well. They look a bit silly, swaying alone in the middle of the floor in their coats. However, looking closer at the scene makes it desperately sad. Neither one of them wants to go home. They can’t bear to be parted. At an earlier ball, an admiral’s wife notes of Louise and Donati, “They’re seen everywhere.” Her husband replies, “They can meet nowhere else.” On the surface, those thoughts conflict. They can’t meet anywhere except for everywhere? If you twist the prism to make the come through a different angle, though, it makes perfect sense. People will be less likely to suspect Louise and Donati are having an affair if they are always surrounded by other people. They need witnesses to maintain their innocence.

Why is there such a sudden turnaround of emotions for these moments in The Earrings of Madame de…, though? There is no “come down,” no long process between finding something funny and finding the same thing sad. I think in part it is because these moments are so fleeting in the film. I wouldn’t say the movie is fast-paced, but it does not hold its shots any longer than it needs to. Director Max Ophüls was efficient, both in filming his actors and in managing his time—according to the DVD liner notes for The Earrings of Madame de…, Ophüls completed the movie under budget and ahead of schedule.3

One of my past therapists told me human emotions don’t run on quite the spectrum we imagine they do. Happy and sad are not on opposite ends of a sliding scale. You don’t necessarily need to ‘come down’ and go through other, less happy feelings before you can achieve sadness. In fact, it can be easier to go from feeling one big emotion to another big emotion, even if it might not make logical sense. When you’re already feeling something strongly, it can be easy to flip from happiness to sadness.

A similar concept is the opponent-process theory (OPT) of psychology. OPT “explains how the primary or initial reaction to an emotional event will be subsequently followed by an opposite secondary emotional state.4 It’s like Newton’s third law of motion—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you have every felt sad after a big celebration, like a wedding or a birthday party, or felt excited after finishing a project you were anxious about, you know what I’m talking about.

black-and-white image of a dark-haired man looking at a light-haired white woman

Image sourced from Internet Movie Database

A hobby of mine is interrogating the line between horror and comedy. I’m interested in finding where specifically that turn happens. I want to find that invisible line one has to cross. When does something stop being amusing and start being terrifying? When does something stop being threatening and start being ridiculous? It is there. It exists. I have seen stories cross that line, and I have seen stories that sometimes cross it then double back and do a funny little tap dance on that line.

The Earrings of Madame de… has moments like that as well. Midway through the film, Donati comes to visit Louise at her and André’s home. While he waits in the parlor for Louise, Donati looks around at several solo portraits of André lining the walls. At first, I found this humorous—it seems so ridiculously narcissistic of the general to have pictures of himself hanging everywhere. It stopped being funny when I realized how inescapable André is to Donati. Donati must always feel like André is watching him, even when the general is not physically present. André’s presence is always in between Donati and Louise. Donati must always worry about having the general’s eyes on him, especially in a room surrounded by paintings featuring André’s penetrating gaze.

black-and-white image of a namecard that reads “Madame de” which is partly obscured by a napkin

Image sourced from Silver Screencaps

Even The Earrings of Madame de…’s title gag is a bit tragic. It is a farcical trope that the audience never learns Louise and André’s surname. All manner of small coincidences lead to it not being revealed—characters are interrupted while speaking, place cards and address lines are obscured. It can be amusing in its ridiculousness, but at the same time it feels as if the audience is being asked, “Does it really matter who Louise is? Does it matter who these people are in the grand scheme of it all?” Louise is a beautiful and complex character. I thought, “I wish you hadn’t lied” several times throughout the movie due to her. Louise is the driving force of the film, but we don’t even get to know her last name. It is frustrating; I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Sources

1 Thomas Hardy, “Letter date: April 14, 1889, Letter from: Thomas Hardy, Letter to: John Addington Symonds, Location: Max Gate, Near Dorchester,” The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Volume 1, 1840-1892, edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978). 190.

2 An investigation into who first coined the phrase “Comedy equals tragedy plus time” and most of the people it has been attributed to over the years: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/06/25/comedy-plus/

3 “The Earrings of Madame de… DVD Liner Notes.” The Earrings of Madame de…: The Criterion Collection DVD, The Criterion Collection, 2008.

4 Charlotte Nickerson, “Opponent Process Theory of Emotion and Motivational States,” Simple Psychology (Updated November 9, 2023). https://www.simplypsychology.org/opponent-process-theory.html.


Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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