The exquisite circularity of the roundelay remains an attractive cinematic device, but never has it been used with more delicacy and canny insight than in La Ronde (France, 1950), Max Ophuls’ adaptation of the Arthur Schnitzler play “Reigen.”
Anton Walbrook is our master of ceremonies, a combination narrator, stage manager and director who guides the audience from behind the scenes of a studio into a 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 for a night at the opera, and then meets the first player, a streetwalker played by Simone Signoret. She is carried along on the carousel and into the company of a soldier (Serge Reggiani), who goes on to a young maid (Simone Simon), who then moves on to a young gentleman, and so on. As one scene ends, we waltz along as they change partners and dance again, and again, and again, skipping through from streetwalkers and soldiers, courtesans and counts, and back until we come full circle.
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. The camera glides, swirls, and delicately dances around the fleeting moments between lovers, from chance meetings and secret trysts to the sincere but hopeless courtship by a besotted admirer and the relaxed banter of cuckolding married couples. Ophuls’ wry glimpses behind closed doors and pulled curtains are both cynical and sweet, generous of character but suspect of motives.
Returning to the superb metaphor of the carousel, where our dapper host offers wry commentary, Ophuls plays at the game of love with a cocked grim and a sly jab but never belittles or judges. What could easily have descended into farce is lifted into loving satire by Ophuls’ elegant touch and sparkling wit. Everyone is somebody’s fool, and isn’t it wonderful?
La ronde marked the German-born director’s triumphant return to Europe after his Hollywood sojourn and it was an international box-office hit and a critical success. It won two awards at Venice and a BAFTA for best international film and earned Oscar nominations for its screenplay and art direction. And it launched the final fertile period of the master of wistful romance.
The cast of lovers, cuckolds, and fool is filled out by Daniel Gélin, Danielle Darrieux, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Louis Barrault, Isa Miranda, and Gérard Philipe.
For more information on the film’s production, here’s an essay at the Turner Classic Movies website.
In French with English subtitles, black and white