La Ronde Review
In 1950, Max Ophuls was still under contract to US producer Walter Wanger. But when two projects fell through, he returned to France – where he had made several films before World War Two – and there the possibility of adapting Arthur Schnitzler's play Reigen came about. As it happens, France was the only country at the time where it would have been possible to adapt this once-scandalous play, as Schnitzler had sold the rights to it. In all other countries, his estate controlled all rights and forbade any production, following the author's wish that it remain a play to be read and not performed.
Schnitzler (1862-1931) wrote Reigen in 1897. Its subtitle is “Ten Dialogues”, but what caused the furore and accusations of “pornography” is that each dialogue is between a man and a woman before and after having sex. The act itself is implied by the closing and opening of a curtain, but such decorousness did not prevent offence being taken. The ten scenes form a circle, with one of the sexual partners in one scene participating in the next, the cycle moving up the social ladder but beginning and ending with a prostitute. There have been two other film versions since Ophuls's in 1950, and a brief flurry of interest in Britain with TV and stage adaptations once copyright lapsed in 1981. Later versions have tended to increase the sexual explicitness, to lesser effect.
Ophuls had adaptated Schnitzler before, in his 1933 German film Liebelei, based on an 1895 play later adapted by Tom Stoppard as Dalliance. (Stanley Kubrick, an avowed admirer of Ophuls, adapted Schnitzler's 1926 novella “Traumnovelle” as his final film, Eyes Wide Shut.) His and co-writer Jacques Natanson's masterstroke was to invent a master of ceremonies (played by Anton Wallbrook) who commented on the action and introduced the characters and spoke both to them and to the audience. In many ways, La Ronde sets the template for his final films, the episodic structure of Le plaisir and Lola Montès, the Brechtian use of a MC figure in the latter. While Ophuls has always been aware of the need for love as well as its cost, La Ronde also partakes of Schnitzler's more cynical world view: if someone is swearing undying love now, he or she will be doing the same to someone else in due course.
The film is studio artifice of a high order. It begins with one of the great sequence shots in Ophuls's career, running over six minutes, as the MC introduces himself and begins the film. The nine actors in each episode are basically playing types, but Ophuls and Natanson and the cast help to humanise them. The black and white camerawork of Christian Matras, who would photograph all of Ophuls's later films (apart from one episode of Le Plaisir) is elegance itself, and as with any Ophuls film you could watch it for the camera movements alone. Oscar Strauss's waltz music adds to the atmosphere of this Old Vienna of the imagination, somewhere Ophuls had frequently visited in his films.
La Ronde was the biggest hit of Ophuls's career, helped no end by a very starry cast for its time. Admittedly not all the names are quite so big now, and some of them are best known now for their roles in Ophuls's films, but this was big box office in 1950. Admittedly, the air of Gallic naughtiness did not hinder matters. This was a time when Hollywood was in the grip of the Production Code Administration and British censorship wasn't much more liberal, so part of the attraction for foreign-language films, especially those from continental Europe, was the greater degree of licence available. (And there were cinema clubs for the films the BBFC wasn't able to pass.) As it happened, the BBFC did pass La Ronde with cuts for an X certificate (over sixteens only at the time), though those cuts have since been reinstated, first with a cinema reissue in 1982, then with a subsequent video release and this DVD. (A longer cut of La Ronde can be found, though the present version of 89 minutes with PAL speed-up is the official one approved by Ophuls and his estate.) In the USA, La Ronde faced an obscenity lawsuit. In the film, Ophuls parodied the censors, by finding cinematic equivalents to the curtains of the stage productions, at once point having the MC cut the film himself.
Partly because of its commercial success, and its (then) pushing of the envelope for on-screen sexual content, La Ronde is sometimes looked on as lightweight compared to Ophuls's other work of its time. It's lighter than air, but as always has a bitter aftertaste: it takes its place amongst its director's great films.
Released simultaneously with Caught, La Ronde takes Second Sight's Max Ophuls Collection up to six titles. As before, the disc is a DVD-5 encoded for all regions.
La Ronde was shot in black and white and Academy Ratio, so the DVD transfer is in 4:3 as you would expect. Compared to Caught, it's certainly sharper and more defined, but there are a few problems. Some dark scenes seem too dark. Also, at 65 minutes one shot (the first of chapter 14) has a faint mauve tone, compared to the blacks and whites and greys elsewhere.
The soundtrack is mono, and very little needs be said: it's as the film has always been heard, and I detected no problems with balance of dialogue and music. Subtitles are optional, if your French is good enough.
The commentary is by Susan White, author of The Cinema of Max Ophuls. It's a detailed talk, with few pauses, spending a lot of time on how Ophuls illuminates the interactions between the characters – a little dry in places but worth sticking with. Accompanying it is another analytical featurette, “Circles of Desire” (37:07) by Alan Williams. This goes into great detail on the background of the original play and the film and is a very worthwhile addition. Also on the disc is an interview with Daniel Gélin (12:39), conducted in 1989, in which he describes how he was cast (as possibly the least well-known actor in the film at the time) and Ophuls's working methods. (He worked for the director again in Le Plaisir.)
The extras are concluded by a stills gallery.
In 2002, to mark the centenary of Ophuls's birth, I reviewed the Fox Lorber edition of Lola Montès, which at the time was the only Ophuls DVD available in the USA or the UK. Six years later, the situation is much better, with Second Sight's Collection up to six titles. A forthcoming and presumably much improved edition of Lola Montès will make that seven, and let's hope that they make some of the director's earlier European work available as well.
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
8 out of 10
6 out of 10