Adapted from Louise de Vilmorin’s novel and directed by Max Ophuls, a countess sells diamond earrings and lies to her husband. She falls in love with a baron who acquires the earrings and gives them to her. The earrings continue to change hands.
Comtesse Louise (Danielle Darrieux) looks over her jewel collection and expensive wardrobe. She selects a hat and considers what she can give up. She puts a pair of diamond earrings in her purse and goes downstairs, kissing the maid on the way and going out.
Louise goes into a church and makes a quick prayer, buys a candle and lights it before going.
She goes into a jewelry store and asks to see Monsieur Rémy (Jean Debucourt) who assures her of their discretion. She says she is in debt because of spending too much and hands him the earrings, asking if he will buy them. He says he will think it over. She nearly faints, and he calls his son Jerome. Rémy gives her some water. As they walk downstairs, he shows her how much he will pay, and she agrees it is sufficient. He asks what she will tell her husband, and she says she will think of something and goes out.
At the opera Louise tells her husband General André (Charles Boyer) that she lost her earrings, but he says he noticed she did not wear them tonight. She insists she did, and he says she might have misplaced them in the carriage. He looks for them in the box and goes out to the carriage. There he searches with a lamp. He goes to another box and explains that his wife may have lost earrings there.
André has come home, and the maid tries to help him find them. Other servants try to help also.
André returns to the opera theater as Louise is leaving. A man tells him they may notify the police. André asks him to do so.
Rémy asks Jerome for the news article and the jewels and leaves his store.
Rémy calls on André at his office and shows him the diamond earrings the Comtesse brought him yesterday. He bought them to help her. André says he does not let others do favors for him. He asks him for a bill for the second sale of the earrings and asks him to keep it confidential.
André meets Lola (Lia Di Leo) at a train station, and she says she will forget him. They get on the train, and he says one of his officers had a similar difficulty. He asks for a kiss, but she declines to say goodbye that way. He gives her a case of jewelry, but she declines without seeing what is in the case. He kisses her goodbye and asks her to send him her address in Constantinople. He leaves the train, but from the window she tells him she will keep the jewelry after all. The train leaves.
At home André asks Louise if she is asleep. She says no because of the earrings. He says the newspapers are making too much of it. He asks if she suspects someone, but she says no. He suggests the servants, but she says she just lost them. He goes to bed in another room from her bed, and they talk but have difficulty hearing each other. She says she is sorry and asks him not to speak of it anymore. They say good night.
Lola explains to Turkish customs that the earrings were a gift from a friend. She gets off the ship. She gambles at roulette and loses. She goes to a window and tries to sell her bracelets, but the man refuses to buy them and suggests the earrings. She accepts money for them and bets it, losing again. The diamond earrings are featured in a store window.
At French customs the Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica) says he bought them in Turkey. Louise walks past him and complains about paying duties on jewelry. The diplomat sees her and wants to speak to her. He hurries, but she has gone.
Donati follows her carriage which gets entangled with his carriage. He gets out and apologizes to her, though he is glad. He says they met at customs at Basel two weeks ago. She remembers and says she noticed him. Her carriage leaves as he says he hopes to see her again.
At a banquet Louise is sitting next to Donati. André comes over and asks how he did in Constantinople. A marchioness invites them to a party on Thursday, and a colonel invites them to one on Friday. She dances with a younger man who says he was hoping to see her. André sits and talks with Donati. A newspaper editor asks André about the peace conference. Donati gets up and dances with Louise. She admits she may have encouraged the young Englishman. The diplomat hopes to see her at the parties. She asks about the trouble in Montenegro. He advises her not to worry. He asks about her husband, and she says he is well. He is enchanted with her and will miss her for two days. He becomes jealous of the young man. They dance at several balls, and the orchestra says they are always the last. A musician leaves, and only Donati and Louise are dancing. She says her husband is returning tomorrow. Servants are putting out the candles.
On a field André takes a drink as they prepare for a hunt. Louise is riding a horse and hears that Donati is coming. She looks through a telescope and sees a man fall from a horse. She faints, and André runs to her.
In a carriage André asks her not to let her fainting spells last longer than the usual three minutes. He says the baron is doing well, and she seems happy.
André loses at billiards against Donati. They sit down, and André drinks. Donati apologizes for causing his wife to faint. André says the Lisbon earthquake caused her to faint for twenty minutes.
At home André is leaving, and Louise tells him she is going away either to their estate or to London. He asks why, and she says she made a spectacle of herself. She wants to go away for a rest. He asks about her weak heart and asks if they should have a serious talk. He says they are out of the habit. He says she is not in great danger and tells her they have been playing with fire. He says she will stay in Paris. She is lying in bed and pleads to go. He says they will go together. Like Napoleon he will face the foe; she can have whatever she wishes.
Louise is packing while a woman reads the cards for her. She says her husband will cause trouble for her, and it involves a king and a foreigner. She says the nine and ten of hearts mean a great love between two people. They are informed that Donati is downstairs. Louise comes down and finds him in the library. She asks how he knew she was leaving. He says he did not know but came to assure her and to thank her for her concern. They discuss the painting of the battle of Waterloo. He asks why she is leaving, and she asks why not. She is sitting and puts her head on his chest, and he bends over her. He explains that he sent her a gift of roses from Constantinople, and she runs upstairs. André comes in and is told that Donati is in the library. André joins him there.
Upstairs she puts on the earrings that came back from Constantinople.
André thanks Donati for dropping by so he could wish Louise a good journey for several weeks. Donati says he did not know about her trip. As Louise comes down, she hears them talking. She takes off the earrings and goes in the library. André asks her to show Donati out. As they go, she says her maid will contact him. He asks her to come back and leaves.
At night Louise puts the earrings in her purse and burns the box.
André walks with Louise by the train. He says he will have her room redone. They board the train, and he advises her to keep warm because of her health. He kisses her hand and gets off the train which leaves. Louise tries to sleep on the train.
Louise walks on a beach, and a maid tells her that the luggage is ready for the seventh move in five weeks.
In a palace Donati has a letter to go to Rome. He is composing a love letter.
Louise reads the letter on a train, rips it up, and throws it out the window.
On the new year diplomats have gathered and hear a speech about marriage. Donati quietly applauds. He talks with André who says he dropped something. Donati picks up a letter.
In the country Louise gets out of one carriage and gets in another as a servant waits in the first. Inside the other carriage Donati is kissing her as she lies in his lap. She thanks him for her earrings and says she will wear them always. He asks how, and she says she does not love him. He kisses her.
At home Louise and André come down the stairs, but she goes back and gets the earrings, putting them in a glove in a drawer. André says they are late and finds her getting gloves from the drawer. As she puts one on, she discovers the earrings and acts surprised. She puts them on, and he wonders if they are the same ones. She says they must have fallen into her gloves that night.
At a ball Louise dances with Donati, and she asks if the earrings make her look beautiful. He asks what her husband thinks, and she says she told a white lie. She asks Donati to forgive her, and he kisses her. She wants to be alone with him and suggests they go to his country house. He is told that André wants to see him in another room. Louise declines to dance with an officer and walks over to André. She says the baron is waiting. André asks her to give him the earrings. He says he has his secrets too.
Donati is waiting, and André comes in and shows him the earrings, asking if they came from Constantinople. Donati says yes. André asks if he knew the woman who owned them before. Donati says no. André says it is improper for his wife to accept such a valuable gift from him. André suggests he take the earrings back to his jeweler to find out how much to charge for them. A man runs in and tells André his wife has fainted. He goes to her and asks her to stop play-acting. She asks why he asked for the earrings. He dances with her and asks why she is pale. He goes to get her coat, and she walks away, finds Donati, says she must leave, and asks when they can meet again. He says they cannot see each other anymore. He learns that she owned the earrings before and realizes she told him a white lie too. She explains she sold them and made up a story. She says they were a wedding present and asks Donati to forgive her. He says he is no longer with her, speaks to André, kisses her hand, and walks away. André and Louise leave together.
André sells the earrings to Rémy in his army office.
At home André asks Louise how she is feeling. She is sitting on a couch with her feet up under a blanket. He opens the curtains, and she complains. The maid quickly closes them. André asks to speak to Louise alone, and the maid goes out. He opens the curtains again and asks if she cancelled all her social engagements for two weeks. She admits it. He asks what she is suffering, and she says, “Humiliation.” He advises her to think no more of Donati because he has forgotten her. He says unhappiness comes from our own imagination. He presents her with the diamond earrings, and she kisses them. He takes them back and says they no longer belong to her. Then he goes out.
André and Louise arrive at a cottage in a carriage and go in. He expects that she is unhappy with him but assures her she will get over those earrings. She says she will never forgive him. They enter a room with many children and a woman in bed. He has Louise give the earrings to his niece who says she could not accept them. Louise sees a baby and cries by the window. She asks for a mirror to fix her makeup.
At work Rémy tells André that his niece sold the earrings to him to save her husband from bankruptcy. André says he does not care and does not want to buy them a fourth time. The soldiers have been suffering under André for the past two weeks.
Rémy returns to his place, and Louise’s maid tells him she is there. She learned that the niece sold the earrings to him. She asks if her husband bought them, and he says no. She wants to buy them and will sell valuable things to buy them even though she is not going to wear them but must hide them. He is willing to sell them again.
At home André asks what happen to her jewels, and she says she sold them. He says he is not angry but pities her for turning remorse into memories. He is not fond of the person she had made him; he would not have chosen that. He asks her not to escape into a world of sickness and silence. He does not blame her and is her friend. She says no one can help her now. She says Donati does not love her either. André says it is his fault.
André finds Donati at a restaurant and reminds him he said the army is useless. Donati recalls saying that if the diplomats did their job, the army would not be necessary. André says that makes him feel useless. André challenges him to a duel and walks out.
André practices shooting at a target.
Louise goes to see Donati but learns she is not permitted to see him. Donati comes in and says he wanted to spare her that meeting. She asks about the duel, and he asks how she heard of it. She says Nanny told her and asks why he is fighting over a crazy woman like her who is not even pretty anymore. He says she is prettier than ever. She suffers because of what she was. She asks if he loves her now, but he says nothing. She says André is a good shot, and it is suicide.
On a country road a carriage arrives, and André gets out. Another carriage brings Donati.
In town Louise takes a carriage to a church where she prays and believes that her sin was only in her thoughts. She puts the earrings on the altar and goes back to the carriage.
A man steps out the distance between the duelers. A referee reads the rules and says the offended party shoots first. A carriage arrives, and Louise runs up the hill. André shoots first, and Louise stops. She asks Nanny why there was not a second shot. Louise says she is not feeling well, and Nanny runs for help.
In the church the bell tolls. In a case are the diamond earrings with a sign that they are a gift from Madame de.
This romantic drama depicts aristocratic society in France following the Napoleonic era. (The reference to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is an error because she could not have aged sixty years and have a painting of Waterloo which was in 1815.) Her loving a diplomat after a general could imply a preference or a trend from war to diplomacy.