| La ronde was director Max Ophuls’s first European film since his three-year sojourn in Hollywood from 1947 to 1949, during which time he directed the light-hearted costume drama The Exile (1947), the romantic drama Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), and two film noirs, Caught (1947) and The Reckless Moment (1949). Thus, La Ronde is very much a homecoming to the Continent, the kind of class-conscious, rule-bending sex farce that would have been absolutely unthinkable in Hollywood under the thumb of the Production Code at the height of the Studio Era.|
La ronde, which was based on a scandalous play written by Arthur Schnitzler in 1900 but not staged in his native Vienna for another two decades, gives new meaning to the term “bed-hopping,” as it spends its brisk 93 minutes following the romantic and sexual travails of 11 very different characters who are watched over by an unnamed master of ceremonies (also referred to as “the raconteur” or “the elegant gentleman”) played by Anton Walbrook, a debonair Austrian actor who had spent the immediate postwar years starring in several films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Walbrook sometimes guides and manipulates the characters’ actions, but he is mostly content to sit on the sidelines in a variety of guises watching with bemusement and occasionally singing about the proceedings (the inclusion of this self-consciously fourth-wall-breaking character was added to the film by Ophuls and his cowriter Jacques Natanson, with whom he also collaborated on 1952’s Le plaisir and 1955’s Lola Montès).
Scored to a cheerful waltz by Oscar Straus and with a merry-go-round as its none-too-subtle central narrative symbol, La ronde takes us on a whirlwind tour of love, lust, and disillusionment in fin-de-siècle Vienna. It all starts when a prostitute named Leocadie (Simone Signoret) picks up Franz (Serge Reggiani), a young soldier. After their rendezvous, Franz seduces a maid named Marie (Simone Simon), who then has an afternoon fling with Alfred (Daniel Gélin), the bookish son of the wealthy family for which Marie works. It turns out that Alfred has been carrying on a relationship with Emma (Danielle Darrieux), a married woman he sees in an apartment that he has leased just for their meetings. The roundelay is temporarily derailed when Alfred is unable to perform in bed, which coincides with the raconteur’s merry-go-round breaking down (see what I mean about the lack of symbolic subtlety?). Luckily, he gets the contraption working again and Alfred is able to finish what he started, after which Emma goes home and discusses the nature of infidelity with her husband Charles (Fernand Gravey), who berates her for hanging around with women of “dubious reputation” (unaware, of course, that she is one) before going out the next day and conducting his own affair with Anna (Odette Joyeux), a 19-year-old model. Anna ditches him for Robert Kuhlenkampf (Jean-Louis Barrault), a pompous poet who has been conducting his own affair with Charlotte (Isa Miranda), the lead actress in a play he has written. Nevertheless, Charlotte catches the eye of a count (Gerard Philipe), who then leaves her that evening for--you guessed it--Simon Signoret’s prostitute, thus bringing the farce full circle.
The scandalous nature and Freudian cynicism of Schnitzler’s play (an Austrian writer once called it “the death dance of love”) is given a softer edge in the translation via Ophuls’s more temperate, romantic sensibilities, which are heightened with his trademark fluid camera movements and gentle sense of comic irony. La ronde could have easily become either too nasty or too flippant, and if the film is truly memorable it is because Ophuls manages such a deft balancing act with nearly a dozen fickle characters who each represent some form of either hypocritical self-delusion or sure-to-be-crushed whimsical idealism. It is precisely the kind of decadent, European flaunting of traditional mores that was largely unimaginable in Hollywood at the time, although the film did manage to play in New York in 1954 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the New York State Board of Regents’ ban on the grounds of obscenity.
La ronde isn’t quite worth all that fuss, though, especially in light of Ophuls’s truly great works. Critics at the time had a largely similar assessment, seeing it primarily as the director pandering to commercial sensibilities. Granted, the film is virtually all surface, especially with its shining all-star cast of European luminaries at the height of their wattage, but Ophuls orchestrates his merry-go-round of capricious infidelity with such style and panache that it’s easy to get sucked into its mixture of carefree charm and gently pensive view of human frivolity. Never has the specter of joy becoming pain been so whimsical.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3)
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