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The great films of director Max Ophuls, the cinema's most eloquent conductor of love stories both tragic and droll, haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of fickle lovers in a world of social barriers. Yet his films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. La Ronde (1950) marked the German-born director's triumphant return to Europe (he had fled to America in World War II) with a film of sparking wit, visual grace, continental sophistication and elegant poise. The director arrived in Paris in 1949 to develop a project for American producer Walter Wanger (with whom he had made his American masterpiece, The Reckless Moment, 1949) with which they hoped to entice Greta Garbo out of retirement. When that project, and others, failed to come together, Ophuls went to work for French producer Sacha Gordine on an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's play Reigen. Ophuls and his screenwriter, Jacques Natanson, preserved the play's characters and the circular structure of lovers who meet for brief encounters then change partners in a daisy chain of affairs that bring us full circle. However, they replaced the subject of Schnitzler's play (which follows the spread of venereal disease through the rounds of partners) and the cynical tone with his own sensibility: everybody is somebody's fool in La Ronde.
Along with the ten characters of the original, Ophuls adds an eleventh: the "Meneur de jeu," a master of ceremonies, or perhaps a conductor in the orchestra of seduction. Played by Anton Walbrook, this combination narrator, stage manager and director guides the audience from behind the scenes of a studio into this grown-up fairy tale version of fin-de-siecle Vienna, a romanticized vision of a romantic past created like a half-scale model. He trades his street dress for evening clothes, cape and cane, as if dressing up for a night at the opera, and then meets the first player, a streetwalker played by Simone Signoret, as she is carried along on the carousel he winds to life. "Are you making fun of me?" she asks this gently sardonic figure in evening clothes and cape. "I make fun of no one," he replies, and it is true. He passes no judgment and, if anything, seems protective of these fickle lovers who come together for a night, a day, a tryst, and then move on to the next.
The girl approaches a soldier (Serge Reggiani), who is in a hurry (and broke). She follows, the camera gliding along with her, sweeping them along as she persists and he finally gives in. She wants some intimacy and affection and he simply wants a quick one before heading to the dance. The camera leaves the girl, unfulfilled and abandoned, and tags along with the soldier as he marches forth to meet up with a maid (Simone Simon), a young girl looking for more than a casual affair. This kittenish girl is not as naïve as she seems, however, as she coyly flirts with a young gentleman (Daniel Gélin) and introduces him into the ways of love, and so on. As one scene ends, we waltz along as they change partners and dance again, and again, and again, through a program of chance meetings, secret trysts and hopeless courtships. There's a married woman (Danielle Darrieux), her older husband (Fernand Gravey), a mercenary young girl (Odette Joyeux), a flamboyant poet (Jean-Louis Barrault), an imperious actress (Isa Miranda), and a blasé Count (Gérard Philipe), who ends up in the bed of streetwalker Signoret, completing the circle on this romantic merry-go-round.
Less short stories than vignettes of brief encounters, it's a celebration of love and desire, passion and folly, wistful regret and optimistic hope rekindling with every new encounter. Ophuls carries it off with continental wit and elegant poise. Our master of ceremonies offers wry but affectionate commentary (often through song), stepping into the film as waiter or butler to keep the characters on their fateful paths and even, in one scene, as an editor to snip a strip of film, cutting out a seduction and throwing us to the end of the scene, not so much a censor as a gentleman leaving them their privacy. He's at once director and spectator and the man who keeps the machinery of this carousel running.
The cast of La Ronde is a cross-section of France's greatest stars (Danielle Darrieux, who went on to star in Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame de... , Simone Simon, Gérard Philipe) and rising talents (Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Odette Joyeux) as well as international stars Isa Miranda and Anton Walbrook, who carries the film along with his ineffable mix of cultured grace, aristocratic poise and bemused appreciation of these inconstant lovers.
Though lavish by European standards, the studio resources at Ophuls' disposal for this production were slight compared to what Hollywood had to offer, but the challenge, as well as the creative freedom, invigorated the director. "I can't stand still anymore," Ophuls wrote Wanger (in a somewhat fractured English). "I had great fun to get something out of this wonderful French disorganizationed unefficient dust and improvisation." Ophuls was given free reign stylistically his camera, like the carousel, glides, swirls, and delicately dances around the fleeting moments of flirtation and seduction between lovers. The film also allowed him to explore frank subject matter with wit and sophistication and knowing winks to the audience.
La Ronde proved to be Ophuls' biggest film ever, an international box-office hit and a critical success that earned a British Academy Award for Best Film (International) and Oscar® nominations for its screenplay and art direction. The waltz theme by composer Oscar Straus became a minor hit tune on its own. Ophuls' production team cinematographer Christian Matras, production designer Jean d'Eaubonne and costume designer Georges Annenkov returned for Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de... and Lola Montes (1955), the final three films completed by Ophuls before his premature death in 1957 at the age of 54. La Ronde was the beginning of this final fertile period of the great director.
Producers: Ralph Baum, Sacha Gordine
Director: Max Ophuls
Screenplay: Louis Ducreux; Kurt Feltz; Jacques Natanson; Max Ophuls; Arthur Schnitzler (play "Reigen")
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Music: Oscar Straus
Film Editing: Leonide Azar
Cast: Anton Walbrook (Raconteur), Simone Signoret (Leocadie the Prostitute), Serge Reggiani (Franz, the Soldier), Simone Simon (Marie the Housemaid), Daniel Gelin (Alfred), Danielle Darrieux (Emma Breitkopf), Fernand Gravey (Charles Breitkopf, Emma's Husband), Odette Joyeux (Anna the Grisette), Jean-Louis Barrault (Robert Kuhlenkampf the Poet), Isa Miranda (Charlotte the Actress), Gerard Philipe (The Count).
BW-93m. Closed Captioning.
by Sean Axmaker