Sink gratefully into "The Earrings of Madame De . . .," a warm tub on the nastiest of days. Wildly romantic, reeking of style, taste and intoxicating visual opulence, this is an extraordinary film. Opening today at the Key, "Earrings" is arguably the greatest, most transcendent of cinematic love stories, and all the more ravishing for being barely known.

Sadly, filmmaking in the elegant, assured style of director Max Ophuls has today become as much a lost art as stained-glass-making at Chartres. A German who left his homeland when Hitler took over, Ophuls spent the greatest part of his career in the United States and France, where he made "Earrings" in 1953, four years before his death.

The film's world is that of the cream of society in turn-of-the-century Paris, a world of perfect manners and witty jests where complete discretion is the rule: We never do learn Madame De's last name.

Yet for all its lushness, with the men always in evening dress or gold braid, the women in flowing, heartbreaking gowns, this is the most suffocating of environments, where form dare not be violated. Society as well as her husband may sanction, even expect a pretty woman to flirt heartlessly with callow admirers, but real love is an absolute taboo.

The skeleton key to this world is a pair of diamond earrings, a wedding day present to Madame from her husband. She is selling them off to pay debts as the film opens, telling her husband they've been lost, and as things progress they change hands over and over and over again.

The first stop is from the jeweler back to her husband, who gives them to his mistress, who pawns them in Constantinople where they are bought by an Italian diplomat on his way to Paris, where he falls madly in love with Madame and gives them back to her as a keepsake. And that's only the beginning, each change marking another twist in the deepening, fatal relationship between Madame, her husband and her lover.

With Danielle Darrieux as Madame, Charles Boyer as the husband and Italian director Vittorio De Sica as the lover, "Earrings" is ideally cast, but for once the old criticism cliche of the director being the star is completely true. Ophuls' fanaticism in exactly recreating a world that perhaps never was is breathtaking, and even more so is the way he uses the camera.

For Ophuls, as Andrew Sarris unequivocably put it, "gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of the cinema." His camera doesn't just move, it glides like a magic carpet, caressing the actors and the scenery in a series of fluid, seamless, inexpressibly subtle maneuvers. Most devastating is a montage in which Madame and her diplomat fall in love during the course of a week's series of gliding, glided balls. It's enough to make you cry real tears.

More than this, what makes "Earrings" such a knockout is that Ophuls had an overpowering romantic sensibility and believed strongly in what he was doing. Often criticized for this, he was defended by directors Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, who as film critics wrote, "He was considered old-fashioned, out-of-date, antiquated though he dealt with eternal themes: passion without love, pleasure without love, love without reciprocation."

Ophuls didn't think the romantic was cheap or unworthy but rather the most exalted and meaningful of sentiments, the truest way of looking at the world. Should you feel the same, "The Earrings of Madame De . . ." should not be missed.