“There is no true love without farewells.”
So says one consummate romantic character in Max Ophuls' adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's scandalous play, La Ronde, which synchronously takes on a sincerely melancholic affection for its grandiose cast of longing figures and irreverently jocose mien. Ophuls culls his most exquisite gifts with which to communicate the absurdities and constretemps, the disastrous predicaments and the effervescing mannerisms that stipple the film from its very beginning to ending. More intentionally distant from his subjects than in much of his work here, Ophuls uses an alluring device, framing the multiple, but interlocking plots examining termagent relationships between men and women as tales told by an omniscient and subtly caustic stage manager (Anton Walbrook) who literally oversees “the round,” the carousel that runs on the successfulness of love affairs.
Ophuls' picture is a bedazzling achievement, gliding effortlessly from one pairing to another. Everything about the film seems particularly unique to Ophuls; the substance is attuned to the director's sensibilities (rightly so, as he was one of the several screenwriters who adapted Schnitzler's work), and he is completely attuned to it. The signature opulence of his glittering sets, locales and the impeccable cinematography by Ophuls' colleague Christian Matras could ostensibly not possibly belong to anyone else. Cosmetically a sex farce built with tirelessly painstaking delicacy, La Ronde is frequently quite humorous, wrought out of a visual playfulness that is as adorably winsome as any comic filmmaker's visual literation. Even when a certain naughty symbolic joke teeters on the edge of being overused, its irresistible charm is impossible to ignore. In an early scene, a soldier sits on a bench with the woman he cannot help but try to sexually broach. He clumsily attempts to engulf her on the bench, feebly trying to wrap himself around her. His sword is in the way, however. Later, swords will return to the story, and in one eventful scene, a woman holds a count's sword on her bed, establishing control over him, prodding him to make love to her. The phallic representations punctuate the visually buoyant form Ophuls and his collaborators create. Indeed, La Ronde—most appropriately—goes full circle, rotating back to the soldiers, streetwalkers and swords that are presented in the film's opening stretch.
La Ronde's wit is fantastic, with characters behaving so vainly, possessively, ambitiously and foolishly that a director lacking in Ophuls' deeply ironic humanism would not, could not, have managed to bring the unruly concoction to such nearly miraculous life. In one of the funnier moments, a nervous woman asks her young suitor about what she believes is his home, “Have there been any other women here?” To which he replies, “The building has been here for over fifty years.” The back-and-forth banter is endearing in its farcical harmony.
Yet such obvious humor is utilized sparingly; Ophuls' cerebrally bemused perspective is played out before the viewer with emphatic deliberateness and airy goodwill, with Walbrook's sage raconteur serving as visible, transparent director—a stand-in for Ophuls himself. The humor and pathos the stage manager conveys are both legitimate, seeing the romantic entanglements as almost pitiful flights of fancy that transcend class (which is divided in perspective and personality alike by separate people). The circular movement of the film matches the literal picture Ophuls draws: these twelve characters are chasing one another but they are most indelibly chasing the same desire and destination. Loquaciously representing particular ideas, they are Platonic inventions. Through the specific argot, the characters are eloquent but limited in expressing the truth, free of ornamentation, which guides them.
The film's invocation of the great book of Stendhal's, On Love, and the great author's literature, with its rambunctiously pleasing painting of women—and the men who are so often bewitched by them, bringing about the crystallization of love within their own minds—which makes perfect sense. As Ophuls shapes the picture's constitution, the characters represent the ideas which animate the film's themes. After the host's introduction, a scene in which a lonely soldier is solicited by a prostitute humorously unfolds. The streetwalker's earthy sensuality is specially French in its creation. The soldier's casualness and awkwardness speak to his contrasting inexperience against the streetwalker's weary opportunism. (The streetwalker is played with great frankness by Simone Signoret.) The chambermaid character represents sheerly exuberant passion. Alfred, the two-timing suitor, posing in his dubious but ostentatiously wonderful home, is the “young man” who cannot resist the “chambermaid” and her passion. Temptation is present in other forms as well, with “the Young Lady and Husband,” and the husband and girl in Vienna; the husband is stood up by the girl, while the a poet lands himself in the husband's nest; “the Poet and Actress” examines a girl at the theater, who is stood up by the poet; the actress finds herself a soldier (the count); and finally the count meets the streetwalker as La Ronde almost dizzyingly goes about itself in full circle.
La Ronde looks at the balance of romance requiring the “proper” setting, “appropriate” time and “socially acceptable” conditions against the practicability, reality and, most paramount of all, passion of senses that all too often dictate the choices people make. The film has much to say, but the unmitigatedly light cuteness of the scenarios smooths out any rough edges. Issues as diverse as class divisions, the ideal and reality of noblesse oblige and the jeopardy of lust at the expense of personal happiness, are deftly explored. The film fastidiously follows the trajectory between “love” and “like”—desirability demanding “tests” of masculine manliness. This strain contests the sensuality of feminine charm that is so evident in the numerous portrayals of the fairer sex. Yet the film is never heavier than a perfectly formed soufflé.
The striking set and costume designs by George Annenkov are decorative and almost surreal, particularly as Ophuls shifted from on-location filming to the security and sanctity of sets. Beyond that, however, the set and costume designs assist Ophuls in transcribing the moony mood, ethereal emotion and glowing glamor of every location. This wondrously refined sentiment of Ophuls conclusively enriches Schnitzler's more pronouncedly pessimistic and emotionally brutal tone. The film's lack of severely graphic enactments are part of Ophuls' joke; his Master of Ceremonies is almost drunk on the mere possibilities of the people who populate the interlocking liaisons. And yet he holds a reel of film in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other at one amusingly timed moment. The scene is only slightly coy; the joy and finesse that Walbrook brings to it and all other instances of directly straightforward gamesmanship (several characters speak directly into the camera, though naturally none nearly as much as Walbrook's raconteur) on behalf of Ophuls.
A solid craftsman could perhaps balance the varying components of the plot, but Ophuls brings his breathless visual flair. Sumptuously surpassing the basics of the engrossingly ambitious plot, Ophuls complements the story and its characters with dreamlike tracking shots, mesmerizing camera pans and tilts and thoroughly graceful comprehensiveness of mise-en-scene. One astonishing tracking shot of the chambermaid at the twenty-nine minute mark captures the character's fanciful self-possessiveness. Moments later, as the man she loves is trying to spend an evening with “the Lady,” the woman grows impatient and distrusting of Alfred as he tries to explain away any doubts she has of him. The woman opts to silently leave the home as Alfred struggles, unsuccessfully, to open a bottle of wine. The sad but oddly funny moment is exhilaratingly created by Ophuls out of a sweeping tracking shot, which seems to swim through the walls that divide the rooms he brilliantly captures. The tilts, pans and crane shots repeatedly used by Ophuls allow him to create entirely seamless characterizations without interrupting the ebb and flow of the wholly serene and asomatous tale.
When Ophuls settles down, he does so with a sensitivity unlike anyone. As a man and wife sit in their respective beds, Ophuls shoots much of the scene through a clock that sits near the room's opposite wall. As the husband lectures the wife on the importance of befriending only irreproachable women, Ophuls closes back in on the actor and actress. The cutting between faces at this time is important, as it ably demonstrates the terse confrontational tone between husband and wife, cut apart by shots that capture the reactions each person has to the other's comments. Finally, as the dialogue becomes sweet again, and the tone lightens, and the two find renewed common ground, Ophuls returns to the opening shot of the scene, placing his artfully composed camera behind the clock whose shape allows the two, sitting in their beds, to be captured. The shot through the clock conveys the gulf between the two while establishing that they are still linked to one another. This kind of cinematic genius must be cherished—its reverberating essaying of love is remarkably deep, yet transmits the knotting subject of romance, of desire and of love, with a caress.