La ronde

France, 1950

Directed by Max Ophüls

With Anton Walbrook (the narrator), Simone Signoret (the prostitute), Serge Reggiani (the soldier), Simone Simon (Marie), Daniel Gélin (Alfred), Danielle Darrieux (Emma Breitkopf), Fernand Gravey (Charles Breitkopf), Odette Joyeux (Anna), Jean-Louis Barrault (Robert Kuhlenkampf), Isa Miranda (Charlotte), Gérard Philipe (the count)

Arthur Schnitzler’s play was a study of the relations between men and women across various strata of the Austrian society at the end of the 19th century. It was made up of a collection of ten short dialogues, starting with a prostitute seducing a soldier, in a frank take on the popular classes. Each dialogue would then relate a character already known to a new one, turning the narrative into a round of love, the original title chosen by the writer. He had to change it out of fear of the scandal that anyway was filling the pages of the Vienna press. “La ronde”, the play, was censored for its candid depiction of the sexuality and sentiments between the male and female denizens of a state shaped by conservative and Christian-based views (and also informed by anti-Semitic prejudices).

When an all-powerful narrator shows off his skills: Anton Walbrook (left) and Simone Signoret

No such scandal was probably awaiting Max Ophüls in postwar France when he made a new adaptation of the infamous play (after a 1920 Austrian feature by Richard Oswald), after his stay in the United States where he shot the famous “Letter from an Unknown Woman” (1948). The screenplay he writes with Jacques Nathanson sticks to the original text in the development and the choice of characters. But the film comes out as a surprise nonetheless.

Artificiality is claimed and celebrated as its raison d’être. The director never tries to just shoot the theatrical text. He unashamedly and candidly contrives a storytelling that exploits and exhibits the narrative powers of cinema. An unnamed talkative character bragging about his omniscient abilities climbs onstage and kicks around the movie, introducing the stories and intruding on the characters’ adventures. In the case of Marie the maid, he even takes her hand to lead her to her next lover, quietly walking past cameras and spotlights. Outside sets plainly look like fakes and the omnipresent narrator ends his turn amid the first décor where now machines lie idle and scattered. Narration and its tools are proudly displayed.

Each episode tends to be dealt with a specific and calculated visual style, though some artistic preferences come up then and again. The end result can be amazingly illuminating and clever, like the conversation between the Breitkopfs. It is shot at the level of the clock standing before their beds and showing alternatively the husband, asserting the moral duties of a married woman, and the wife, playing the innocent young lady even as the previous episode showed she has a lover; the play with the shots is wonderfully completed with a play between light and shades as each partner tinkers with lamps. The following episode casts a harsh light on the hypocrisy of Charles Breitkopf as he enters a restaurant with a girl he has just met; he also enjoys having a different partner it seems and does not think it unseemly; and the director would perform new tricks to narrate this affair which blossoms at the same pace as the handing out of this diner’s dishes.

The play probably disturbed because the succession of events involving a character hinted at the sheer hypocrisy of the individuals and at the fact their pleasure could be blissfully ignorant of social proprieties. For the director, the daisy-chain the episodes form is a pleasing way to assert the power of the narrator, compelling the audience to be the thrilled prisoners of a great visual performance.

This artificiality is nonetheless aware of its limits and the audience can also have a laugh at the magician’s shortcomings. The carousel operated by the narrator breaks down as the relationship between Emma Breitkopf and Alfred turns physical and when the count and Charlotte start to peck too much the narrator appears, cutting the film and mumbling about censorship. It is a funny reference to the troubles Schnitzler faced and to the prudish demands of most producers in France and in the United States, where Ophüls spent the war years. It also smacks of elegant self-parody as it plainly likens the narrator to the director, the artist standing behind the artist.

“La ronde”, the film, is a clever entertainment fully aware of its contrived nature, proud to exhibit its tricks. However, the wit of the narrator and of the director does not only highlight the arbitrary rules of the show; it also reflects the arbitrary rules of love, in a move that emphasizes the personal dimension of the play more than its social theme. In retrospect the stylistic variations of the narration are fitting tributes to the peculiar circumstances of each pair of lovers. Their love may need some help but it always shows up unexpectedly and has quite challenging demands. In this game, women seem the most willing players, while men are awkward partners. Indeed, the first man of the round, the soldier, is very reluctantly seduced by the prostitute and the maid whereas at the other end of the (military and social) hierarchy the count behaves in a childish manner. Alfred is an absent-minded and abstract lover, who can be impotent. Charles Breitkopf asserts what is a fake authority, respectful of the conventions but disrespected by women. His wife’s behavior proves to be a perfect epitome of the ladies’ strength; her deceptively innocent smile hides an acute sense of the reality of pleasure – the pleasure of love is acknowledged as readily and blissfully as the pleasure of moviemaking is showed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *