I believe it was Rex Harrison (though it may have been James Mason) who penned the words, “A shot that doesn’t call for tracks is agony for poor dear Max.” And it won’t take many minutes of Max Ophuls La Ronde to make this clear to even the most casual observer. Nearly every scene in the film is constructed with a series of elaborate moving camera shots. In some cases, an entire (and sometimes lengthy) scene is played out in this highly choreographed manner.
Based on the few Ophuls films I’ve seen — The Exile, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Lola Montes and this one — the approach used in La Ronde is the rule, not the exception. (I’m not about to try to rank these movies — in part because I haven’t seen The Exile since I was 15, and that’s longer ago than many of you are old.)
Stylistically, the films are certainly of a piece, and the ones I’ve seen are also in a similar tone of voice. All of them could be summed up with the same phrase used by the narrator (Anton Walbrook) of La Ronde when he explains that the story is set in 1900 Vienna: “I adore the past. It is so much more restful than the present and so much more reliable than the future.”
Ophuls’ films are not really like those of anyone else. It’s true that La Ronde in particular somewhat resembles the work of Josef von Sternberg. The long traveling shots and the propensity for shooting through curtains and veils are very like Sternberg, and for anyone familiar with his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, the film has something of the feel of his memories of the Vienna of his childhood.
The mood of the film has more in common with the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch. Yet it’s difficult to imagine either of these filmmakers making a film quite like La Ronde. Lubitsch did let Maurice Chevalier directly address the audience on occasion in The Love Parade, The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour With You, but those were just touches. Ophuls has built La Ronde entirely around the presence of an active interlocutor (Walbrook), who also takes an active role in the proceedings (while wearing various disguises) and helps guide the action.
We are constantly and deliberately reminded that we are watching a movie. What’s remarkable is that the events seem no less real, in spite of these reminders. Moreover, La Ronde is less a story in the traditional sense than it is a series of interlocking events — an almost avant-garde harbinger of Luis Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberty, though considerably more viewer-friendly. The film simply follows the sexual progression of a series of characters: A prostitute (Simone Signoret) has a “knee trembler” under a bridge with a soldier (Serge Reggiani), who then seduces a housemaid (Simone Simon), who then beds the son (Daniel Gelin) of her employers. The son then becomes involved in an affair with a married woman (Danielle Darrieux), whose husband (Fernand Gravey) takes up with a dressmaker (Odette Joyeux), and so on.
The stories are told in a light and stylish manner that is first and foremost playful. And despite the film’s subject — which is most definitely sex, more than love — it’s hard to imagine anyone finding it offensive. Though the scene where Daniel Gelin first comes on to Simone Simon is surprisingly erotic, there’s nary a patch of skin in the film, something the film itself makes sport of (catch the interlocutor at a moment when one scene threatens to go “too far”).
This is, however, a very adult film in both its subject and its handling of that subject. (Did any film prior to this address the topic of sexual dysfunction?) It feels very modern, despite the period setting and the fact that the film was made 55 years ago. Elegant and lighter than air, La Ronde is a delightful treat.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of La Ronde on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2005 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St. (behind Taco Bell), Hendersonville.]