From: Sight & Sound - Spring 1982
'A Famous Film' - La Ronde - by Francis Wyndham
Arthur Schnitzler's attitude to Reigen seems to have been consistently deprecating. In 1900 he paid for two hundred copies to be privately published and circulated among his acquaintances, describing it as 'a series of scenes which are totally unprintable, of no great literary value, but if disinterred after a couple of hundred years may illuminate aspects of our culture in a unique way.' Twenty-one years later, when its production in theatres at Berlin and Vienna had caused a public scandal, provoking political riots and criminal prosecution, he imposed a ban on any future presentation. He had never intended it to be acted (he explained) but had merely wanted to show his readers 'in an entertaining manner that all people, rich or poor, intelligent or otherwise, speak in exactly the same way during the sexual act.' This year the work came out of copyright in Britain, and to celebrate the end of the ban four separate new translations have been made for performances on stage and television. Reviewing some of these with little enthusiasm, critics have vaguely referred to 'a famous film'. La Ronde is indeed much more famous than Reigen; but owing to legal complications attending its distribution a generation of cinema-goers has matured without the opportunity of seeing it. Its fame is due to its director, Max Ophuls, whose reputation has also matured during the intervening years.
It was made in Paris in l950 - a time perhaps as remote to a modern audience as Schnitzler's Vienna at the turn of the century must have seemed to Ophuls then. He had just returned to Europe from Hollywood, with The Exile, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Caught and The Reckless Moment behind him; and La Ronde (to be succeeded by Le Plaisir, Madame de... and Lola Montez) marked the opening of his last triumphant phase. Londoners, conditioned to austerity at home and a tiny travel allowance abroad, were dazzled by a sophistication which seemed at the same time typically Austrian and typically French; the film was applauded for its civilised irony, cynical wit and bitter-sweet charm, while the theme waltz by Oscar Strauss became a popular classic of the period. Now La Ronde may be shown again. Does it still dazzle? Or have we grown too suspicious of bitter-sweet charm and so on to react with the same delight?
One thing is clear: if Schnitzler at his best was more bitter than sweet, with Ophuls it was the other way round. Schnitzler's original was unromantic, almost brutal in tone: a daisy chain of random couplings in which each sex exploits the other. The pattern of sentimental pretence and duplicity during courtship, followed by post-coital indifference, was repeated with only minor variations through contrasting social spheres, from low life via the opulent bourgeoisie to artistic bohemia. Ophuls' version, half a century later, softened this mischievously bleak study of prosaic promiscuity by approaching it through a haze of poetic nostalgia. His evocation of a never-never Vienna is blatantly stylised; the first shot is of a stage, with candles as footlights; the action remains contentedly studio-bound throughout and the sets have the gauzy, insubstantial look of theatrical backdrops or a once familiar landscape misremembered in a dream. By introducing a new character- the Master of Ceremonies, elegant in evening cloak and tilted opera hat, who sets the merry-go-round tunefully turning - he also introduced an element of determinist fatality not present in the play. The Master of Ceremonies is a figure from expressionist drama, a puppeteer ruthlessly manipulating his dummies while indulgently allowing them an illusion of free will. He is also, it must be admitted, a pretentious cliche- much more so than the broadly characterised 'universal types' of the central drama - and it took an actor with the finesse of Anton Walbrook to prevent him from seeming an irritating bore.
This device also enabled Ophuls to show us a little of what happens to the ten characters outside the two episodes to which each was strictly rationed by Schnitzler. In the process, the intrigue is prettified, becoming a circle of linked love stories rather than a catalogue of copulation or a relay race illustrating the spread of venereal disease. We learn that the soldier, after ditching the maid, falls in love with her too late; we see the husband sadly stood up by the grisette he had seduced with callous caution; and we understand that the grisette has lost her heart to the fickle poet.
Here, Ophuls flirts with sentimentality. Schnitzler's reductionist view of human behaviour, the follies and falsities it is driven to by the erotic itch, may have risked over-simplification and monotony but it was never glib. The notorious rows of dots he used to represent the act of love were tactful rather than arch. In stage productions today, the wretched actors are compelled by current convention to simulate the act, with effects both ludicrous and banal. Ophuls dealt with this problem by various exercises in winsome ingenuity - the most striking being an urbane intervention from the Master of Ceremonies with a reel of celluloid and a pair of censor's scissors. Did all this strike me as coy in 1950? I don't think so - but it does now. As so often in similar cases, one tends to the irrational belief that if anything has changed it is the work rather than oneself.
But such changes are of little importance: the work still dazzles. Ophuls' camera refuses to be restricted by the obvious limits on motion imposed by successive duologues in successive bed-rooms. It roams with the inquisitive abandon and sensuous grace of a cat set free from a basket round the upholstered restaurants, chambres privees, cafe concerts, garconnieres, theatre coulisses and misty riverside alleys which frame the action. The exquisite set and costume designs by George Annenkov do more than decorate: they interpret mood, hint at meaning, betray motive, enhance emotion. If it had no other distinction, the film would survive as an anthology of acting by some of the most brilliant stars of the pre-New Wave French cinema. Has any actress been more delectably sexy than Simone Simon as the maid who seduces (is seduced by?) the 'young master'? No one could equal the delicate glitter of Danielle Darrieux in her two bedroom scenes, with clumsy lover and sanctimonious husband. Given the almost impossible assignment of playing a glamorous ass, Gerard Philipe lives up to his legend. Serge Reggiani, Daniel Gelin, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux... all are consummate. Only Jean-Louis Barrault as the poet embarrasses by caricaturing a philistine's notion of the artistic temperament, and Isa Miranda is not given time to develop her interestingly harsh characterisation of the actress.
Apparently one of their scenes together, in a country inn during a snow storm, was cut by Ophuls from the final print - and its absence, disturbing the crucial symmetry, does make itself felt. (It contains the line 'This is better than acting in stupid plays', which can set a live audience giggling.) It was the first scene he shot, and it was on location. From the rest of the movie, glorying in the artificiality of a studio setting, it must have stood out for Ophuls like a sore thumb, and he reckoned the cost of a little narrative confusion well worth paying for its excision.
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