Criterion // 1950 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 16th, 2008
A wonderful merry-go-round of love with eleven stars!
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again. -- A short poem by actor James Mason about director Max Ophuls
It is the year 1900. At least, that's what our narrator (Anton Walbrook, The Red Shoes) would have us believe. He seems a bit uncertain of himself. Unlike most narrators, this one appears onscreen and makes us guess which character he is playing in the events that are about to unfold. Our narrator wanders over to a carousel, sings a waltz tune, and meets a beautiful lady. He informs us the lady that will start the game of la ronde. So she does. The lady meets a soldier and volunteers to "warm him up" for free at her place. The soldier initially declines, but changes his mind when he learns he will have to walk 10 minutes to get to the lady's place. The soldier invites the lady into a dark alley, has his way with her, and then moves along.
At a ball, the soldier meets another lovely lady named Marie. He quickly whisks her away to a lonely bench and has his way with her. The soldier goes back to the ball, but suddenly Marie is stolen away by our narrator who invites her on a little stroll through time. Suddenly Marie finds that she has been transformed into a chambermaid and quickly finds herself making love with the master of the house. That's only the beginning of the game. These characters and many others will waltz their way in and out of each other's lives (and bodies) until they complete La Ronde.
Max Ophuls' La Ronde is perhaps best viewed as a triumph of style over substance. The film is based on a rather controversial play by Arthur Schnitzler, which is essentially a sensational and somewhat tasteless celebration of promiscuity. If you're simply looking at the story content, La Ronde is kind of an ugly and repulsive film. The remarkable thing is that Ophuls transforms this material into a whimsical delight, so joyously crafted that one quickly loses sight of its nasty themes.
The film's most charmingly fascinating device is the narrator, who has broken past the wall of illusion and has no qualms about addressing the audience directly. He recognizes that the medium of film is all about illusion and expects us to accept it when he moves from a movie set to Vienna in a matter of seconds. The narrator moves far beyond the function of simply telling us what is going on. He often orchestrates what is going on and attempts to dispense with anything that might get in the way of his devious plans. Along the way, our narrator frequently serenades us with a waltz tune, painting the whole affair as a wistfully romantic game. He is played so very well by the great Anton Walbrook, who gave such a masterful performance in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes.
Along the way, we encounter a wide variety of naïve and clumsy lovers. The men are often awkwardly lustful, desperately saying anything the can come up with to get a woman to take off her clothes. A particularly enjoyable scene features a young man in heat telling a woman, "Take off your hat. It will make you feel better." The women initially seem to be a little more intelligent, telling the men that need to behave. Nevertheless, they are always quick to throw themselves into a passionate situation, acting quite foolishly despite knowing better. There are characters so pathetic that you can't help but feel a little sorry for them, but there isn't anyone here to actually like. Everyone in La Ronde is a liar and a cheat, cheerfully betraying their loved ones without much hesitation.
Personally, I view this behavior as rather foolish, dangerous, and sad. The story is something of a tragedy, and a rather unfair generalization of human nature (this coming from an honest-to-goodness cynic). Ophuls does not mourn this situation; he celebrates it, suggesting such behavior is where the joy of life comes from. He makes a hypnotically convincing case, which forces me to deeply admire his cinematic experiment even if I can't exactly go along with the unpleasant sentiments it offers. I must admit, there are times when this film is just brutally funny. I love the sequence where the narrator's carousel breaks down, and at the same moment a man finds himself unable to get the job done. That made me laugh, but the moment when the carousel gets going again is just blissfully well-timed. I was also doubling over during the scene in which the narrator playfully "censors" a moment that is just starting to get spicy.
The transfer here is typically clean, featuring only a very minimal amount of scratches and flecks. There's some grain here, but less than you might expect from a 1950 film. Criterion once again demonstrates just how much TLC they put into restoring these films. The mono solid is fine, though there's a good deal of background hiss.
It's hard to top Criterion in terms of meaty supplements, and they deliver once again here. The best is a commentary from Susan White, author of the book The Cinema of Max Ophuls. I really like this sort of commentary, a satisfying blend of trivia, insight, observation, and history. It's a very good listen. There are also three video interviews featuring Marcel Ophuls (son of the director), Alan Williams, and Daniel Gelin. Some interesting correspondence between Laurence Olivier and Heinrich Schnitzler (son of the playwright) is included, as is the usual Criterion booklet with a good essay on the film by Terence Rafferty.
Worldview objections aside, the film occasionally takes some minor missteps in terms of craftsmanship. There a few dialogue scenes here that fall flat, disrupting the elegantly deviant pace of the film. The movie is presented like a musical work, with each section carefully time and played out. For the most part, it works wonderfully, but the small scenes that don't are distracting.
On a less important note, I'm also not very fond of Criterion's packaging for this film. A plastic disc holder is attached to a cardboard case, which is slipped inside a thin cardboard cover. The whole thing seems a little less than sturdy, and I suspect that it might be easily worn out over time if not stored with extreme care. I'm not entirely against cardboard packaging, I really like some of the lavish stuff Criterion has put together for releases like The Last Emperor, The Third Man, and Mr. Arkadin. However, I far prefer a standard plastic case to what we're given here.
La Ronde is an interesting film. Yes, I think it could even be called a delightful film. I'm not sure that I will be revisiting it very often; I suspect that I will like it less the deeper I dig. I've got nothing against a good sex comedy. By today's standards, La Ronde is very mild in terms of what we actually see. It's the sneering dismissal of love and romance that I dislike. Nonetheless, I'm glad I saw the film. I enjoyed it far more than I probably should have, and I'm certainly intrigued to see more of Max Ophuls' work. Bring the typically classy treatment from Criterion into the mix, and this is definitely a film worth checking out.
Not guilty, but don't expect me to jump into the circle.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary w/Susan White
* Interview with Marcel Ophuls
* Interview with Daniel Gelin
* Interview with Alan Williams
* Correspondence between Sir Laurence Olivier and Heinrich Schnitzler
* Essay by Terence Rafferty