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At the cinematheque: "La Ronde" (Ophüls, France, 1950)

La Ronde

Above: Danielle Darrieux in La Ronde (Ophüls, France, 1950).

One of my favorite and most perfect of Max Ophüls’ films is La Ronde (France, 1950). It is not as baroque in structure or look as Lola Montès (France/West Germany, 1955), his final film, but this movie nevertheless is much more seductive, its storytelling device a more elegant idea and more delicious in execution. The idea, from Arthur Schnitzler’s play, is this: conducted by an unnamed and omnipresent storyteller (a perfectly cast Anton Walbrook), the film introduces pairs of lovers, each with their own short story. Each new story picks up one member of the pair and introduces a new love interest; for example, at the beginning, a prostitute meets a soldier, then the soldier spends time with a maid, and the maid spends time with her master. Thus the film is a round-robbin mobius strip of lovers, where the final pair loops back to include the prostitute from the beginning.
Too much has been written about this classic film already, so I will keep my comments brief. To my mind no Ophüls film so perfectly embodies his style and philosophy on the ups and downs of love, the way lovers inevitably conform themselves to a role (here, a bit theatrical: the married woman, the street prostitute, the demanding actress), and the way everything contains in it both the joy and the pain of love. This emotional facet of the stories is where the film’s structure shines; the sad end to one story is the happy beginning to another, and visa versa. Thus, like all of the director’s best films, Ophüls’ narrative style (the way he tells his story) matches his camera style. The ever-present movement of the camera is directly in tune with the constancy of the highs and lows of love, the happiness and the melancholy. And it is all framed within its clever device, Walbrook drolly commenting and leading the drama (or, in one marvelous case, accidentally sabotaging it—this merry-go-round machine breaks and so does the story, a young lover turns impotent!) which he admits could be theater or a film or indeed, life itself.

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