917. La Ronde (1950, Max Ophuls)

screened Friday April 13 2007 on Janus VHS in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #726 IMDb

Who am I in this story, "La Ronde?" The author? The announcer? A passer-by? I am you. In fact, anyone among you. I am the personification of your desire - of your desire to know everything. People always know only one side of reality. And why? Because they see only one side of things. But I see every aspect because I see from every side that allows me to be everywhere and at the same time. Everywhere!

These are the words spoken by the unnamed narrator of La Ronde, played with brio by Anton Walbrook. In the history of onscreen narrators, he is unique in that he not only comments on the action, but frequently intervenes within the narrative to direct the characters to speed them on their fates. His omnipotence unmistakably makes him an on-screen delegate of Ophuls the director, and the monologue quoted above suggests as much. And yet the narrator insists that he is us as well; that is, he is the personification of our desire. And given that La Ronde is a highly formalistic film depicting a chain of seductions involving ten characters who change sex partners in rondelay fashion, the narrator's interventions call attention to the contrivances involved in keeping this chain intact (doing so may risk coming off as pretentious, but it strikes me as leagues more honest than all the recent multicharacter poly-narrative films such as Crash and Babel that try to pass their contrivances as a simulacrum of reality). By commenting on our common desire to see love, romance and sex on screen and then acting to ensure that those desires are fulfilled by the narrative, the narrator serves as critic and conspirator of this urge which has surged through the blood of moviegoers for ages.

And yet, like an addiction, the repeated instances of lovemaking become increasingly empty. The interactions in the first half of the film are realized with both visual and dramatic vivacity, especially between a maid (the sultry Simone Simon) who loves an effete young bourgeois (Daniel Gelin), who takes as a feather in his cap a married woman (Danielle Darrieux) who keeps her affair away from her husband (Fernand Gravey). The interchanges in the second half (between the husband, a young "grisette", a poet, an actress and a count) are shorter and less elaborately staged. Upon second review, the second half seems to be more self-reflexive, especially in the interactions between the actress (a commanding Isa Miranda) and her two lovers, a poet and a count. Take for instance the knowingness in this exchange between the actress and the poet:

Actress - Why play with me? Poet - You are talent, beauty, life. Actress - Because I'm an actress. Poet - Forget the theater for a moment. Actress - Why forget it? You write plays for it and I play them in it. What would we do without it? Poet - A man and a woman. Actress - You think that a man and a woman would have decided to leave now if they were not of the theater? Poet - You don't love me anymore? Actress - And you? (Poet laughs, caught in his melodramatic mode) Poet - You are right, theater is terrible. We know in advance what we'll tell each other. You chose that hotel because it reminds you of an old love. You like to compare the present and the past. A night of memories. What about me? You'll send me back twenty times. Actress - You know I won't send you back the twenty-first time. You know that don't you? Poet - Yes I know. Actress - That's why I love you.

Later, the count remarks to the actress, "Happiness? There is no such thing, Madame. It's the very things that people talk about most that don't exist...for instance, Love. That's one of them." These later scenes are more static, more self-conscious, as if the characters have pinned themselves down in their experiences, their disappointments.

Taking a step back, one sees the sequence of the affairs creating an arc: from young and passionate to bourgeois merchant class to artists and high society. We see a progression of consciousness regarding their desires, but the essential dilemma remains the same. It's not just about sex either. An interesting recurrence is that almost every character asks what time it is -- and it's usually in a position of compromise, vulnerability, weakness -- when they are afraid of succumbing to their seducer, or they are left waiting for that seducer to reappear in their lives at an appointment that only one party as upheld. These characters are not only pursuing the consummation of desire, but they are fleeing time. Like Ophuls previous film The Reckless Moment, this is a film that depicts existence as a restless, compulsive consumption of time. And like The Reckless Moment, by the end the characters have expended their pursits -- what's left is a mood of barrenness embodied by a barren set.

On the other hand, concerning the film's style, Ophuls, in his first production following his years in Hollywood, expresses himself more freely than at any time in his career at this point. Pre-eminent Ophuls scholar Lutz Bacher gives an extensive account of how Ophuls' cinematography evolved in his years working in Hollywood, leading him to apply his skills to even greater effect in his final years working in Europe, commencing with La Ronde. One eye-opening insight in this article is the disclosure that Ophuls' preference for tracking shots may have been an outcome of his difficulty with shooting for continuity editing due to his dyslexia. Mike Grost:

Some of the camera movements in La Ronde are linked to discussions in the dialogue. These discussions are often logical arguments, in which a character sets forth an idea, point by point. Each stage of the discussion is linked to a new area revealed by the moving camera. The ideas in the dialogue and the images revealed by the camera counterpoint each other, illuminating each other's concepts. This same approach will often be used in the circus scenes in Lola Montès.

Not only ideas are expressed by the stages of the camera movements, but also the characters' feelings. The different stages of the scene through which the characters walk, often correspond to the emotional progression of the characters, especially their romantic feelings.

When characters vacillate in these arguments, the camera can move back and forth over the same path, reversing and then re-reversing its path of movement, along with the characters. In the first episode, Signoret's attempt to have the soldier come with her involves much such back and forth movement, all tied to different stages in her persuasion of the soldier, who waxes hot and cold in his desire to come with her... there is also something profound about the way the camera captures thought. It is as if the tiniest sensations in the thoughts and feelings of the characters are registered by Ophuls' camera and film frame, ever ready to move with them over the subtlest changes in their minds.

This review from Sight and Sound on the occasion of the film's 1982 revival offers some illuminating comparisons to the Arthur Schintzler play upon which the film was based.

This article gives further comparisons between some of Ophuls' adaptations and their source texts