Directed by Max Ophuls
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 93 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: September 16, 2008
Review Date: September 12, 2008
Max Ophuls’ trenchant, somewhat cynical look at the spontaneity and fleetingness of love comes full circle in La Ronde. Light and airy on the surface, underneath there’s a slightly sour quality in this roundelay of loves of varying intensities, many destined for unhappy or unsatisfying ends.
Ten people from all classes of society engage in a carousel of assignations, trysts, and departures, all under the watchful eye of the Meneur de jeu (Anton Walbrook), a kind of omnipotent puppet master pulling the strings and directing the flow of action when characters need a little push or prod. We begin with a Vienna prostitute (Simone Signoret) who picks up a soldier (Serge Reggiani). He leaves her for a dalliance with a young girl (Simone Simon) who’s heart is broken by his indifference after lovemaking, but she’s directed to a house where she becomes the maid to an amorous young man (Daniel Gélin) who is more attentive. He, meanwhile, in engaged in an affair with a married woman (Danielle Darrieux) whose wealthy businessman husband of many years (Fernand Gravey) treats her with respect but not much affection. He’s saving that for a young girl (Odette Joyeux) who enjoys the finer things in life. After being set up in a comfortable apartment, she entertains a young poet/playwright (Jean-Louis Barrault) who has eyes for the actress (Isa Miranda) who’s starring in his play. She, however, would rather entertain a count (Gérard Philipe) who, after a night of drunken revelry, ends up in the bed of the prostitute we met at the beginning of the film.
Director-writer Max Ophuls added the character of the master of ceremonies to the notorious original play by Arthur Schnitzler, and it‘s a stupendous addition, heightening the artifice of the piece while at the same time keeping it grounded as a commentary on the fleeting intransigence of love. It’s hard to imagine now that something of such class and taste could have been considered then scandalously sexual verging on pornography, but the film was banned even in New York and was only allowed to be shown there after the Supreme Court ruled it could be. Ophuls keeps the piece swirling, each vignette flowing gracefully into the next, all the while Oscar Straus’ lovely waltz theme provides a chic motif for all of the sexual dalliances. Walbrook himself is allowed to change roles several times during the film depending on what is needed to keep the plot moving forward, and he also sings (with a dubbed voice) throughout the film commenting on the situations the various pairs of lovers find themselves in.
It is an artificial world we’re in from the start as Walbrook introduces himself on a soundstage with obvious backdrops, lights, and camera equipment, and throughout the movie, we’re never fooled that we’re not on movie sets. The theme of the piece is of primary importance, and the staginess of the film, with Ophuls’ renowned use of long takes, large numbers of dolly, crane, and tracking shots, doesn’t compromise the theme in the least. In fact, the graceful sets, costumes, lighting, and mood heighten the notion that even under optimum conditions, love isn’t always lasting, and even in long relationships there are compromises that aren’t always pleasant.
Due to the episodic nature of the story, few of the actors get the opportunity to create multi-faceted characters, but two stand out from the crowd: Daniel Gélin’s amorous young man, eager for sex with the young girl and then somewhat humiliated when things don’t go as planned with the married lady (the film’s best gag: the carousel Walbrook is operating breaks down at the symbolic moment of the young man’s impotence), is appealing and a little heartbreaking in his two relationships. The most memorable, however, is Danielle Darrieux as the married lady. The lengthy scene with her husband, as they explore their comfortable relationship that seems loving but sexless after so long, is the most memorably acted and shot of the entire film.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented on the disc in Criterion’s usual slightly windowboxed fashion. Not as sharp as other films from Criterion’s library of this era, the transfer also has a few hairs, a few dirt specks, some thin black scratches in several places, and some lengthy print damage in the poet’s section of the film. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is clear enough though there is low level hiss throughout. However, there are no prominent pops or crackle to spoil the otherwise classy artifice of the picture.
There is an audio commentary by Ophuls expert Susan White that spans the length of the film. Though she is quiet for brief periods throughout the film commentary, she adds plenty of information and analysis that’s worth a listen.
Film scholar Alan Williams contributes a 35-minute video critique on the film called Circles of Desire. Filmed in 4:3, his lecture is punctuated with clips from the movie and makes for an interesting companion piece to White’s audio commentary.
An interview with Marcel Ophuls, son of the film’s director, provides 6 ¾ minutes of reminiscences from the Oscar-winning director. This was filmed at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Actor Daniel Gélin speaks for 12 ½ minutes about his experiences in filming the movie, repeating an anecdote about playing his impotence scene as farce that Susan White also related in her commentary.
An interesting correspondence between Sir Laurence Olivier and Heinrich Schnitzler (son of the original playwright) asking for rights to produce a stage version of the piece for the London National Theater is available for the viewer to step through.
The enclosed 16-page booklet contains stills from the film of all the couples and an appreciation of the career of Max Ophuls by film critic Terrence Rafferty.
A superb film that treds lightly but deftly on the subject of sexual mores and the power that both men and women wield in relationships, La Ronde is a highly recommended cinema classic.