A recent roundup of prostitutes in a small town yielded a collection of mug shots of the women of the night. Looking at these empty, grey faces staring blindly into the same kind of camera that departments of transportation use for drivers licenses, one couldn’t help asking, “Who would spend money – or time – with these women?” They were old and skinny, or old and overweight. If they were young, their staring eyes lacked energy, life – and love. They reminded an observer just how desperate some people can be, but also of the need we all have for some kind of connection.
In La ronde, Max Ophuls (1902-1957) presents a beautiful prostitute, Leocadie (Simone Signoret), who wouldn’t fit in with this small-town group of desperate souls. Her eyes are alive, if not with sex, then with desire. As the debonair narrator, master of ceremonies or ringmaster (he is all three and more) played by Anton Walbrook intones: “The past is more peaceful than the present… and more certain than the future”. The only certainty Ophuls allows in La ronde is the certainty of hope. Leocadie might be more eager for her kind of connection than her reluctant soldier suitor (Serge Reggiani). Their verbal thrusts and parries are finally consummated amid non-stop verbal jousting that goes on up the stairs and down, as they walk – and talk – furiously, putting off the inevitable. Curiously, she wants more than the final hook-up. She speaks of liking her soldier. She wants to convince him that this will be more than a casual pairing. She wants to know his name. No farewell cigarette? Something (else) to remember him by? What is this: a sentimental prostitute? Only in Ophuls.
Their pairing is the first of ten in this effervescent roundelay of love. Playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s device becomes Ophuls’: Leocadie’s soldier next meets up with Marie (Simone Simon), who next meets Alfred (Daniel Gélin), the nervous young man, who then meets with the married woman (Danielle Darrieux) and so on until Leocadie re-appears in the last scene with a Count (Gérard Philipe).
Love puts a chokehold on all ten characters, but women aren’t the only ones whose hearts pound uncontrollably in La ronde. Men and women alike swoon, squirm in their chairs, fumble their words and look like lost children. And all are distracted not only by love but also by distraction itself. Love, Ophuls (and Schnitzler) seems to be saying, makes everyone’s knees weak.
Never content to let us stare at all the ways love drives its prisoners to despair from one supreme vantage point, Ophuls’ camera is always on the move, prowling, stalking, sometimes waltzing, while at others tracking like a bloodhound. We see love from above, from below, straight on and at canted angles. Cinematographer Christian Matras, who also shot Ophuls’ Le plaisir (1952), Madame de… (1953) and Lola Montès (1955), as well as Jean Renoir’s masterwork, La grande illusion (1937), also shoots through veils and lattices, plants and the tops of chairs, and around other pieces of furniture. He is the ultimate voyeur, lurking and spying on love, its preludes and codas. Characters’ gazes dart to the right of the frame, and there goes the camera, anticipating, intercepting, and arriving at the mark. It never misses a trick. At times, it even seems as if the camera is looking out of the corner of its eye, like one of Ophuls’ wary lovers. Even through the mist on Vienna’s narrow streets, the camera sees all and links the narrator’s eye for the future with the characters’ eye for the present. The camera does more than observe: it frames meticulously the many moods of love while enveloping us in wave after wave of oceanic rhythms that serve to connect these ten marvelous tales in a long clear arc of visual narrative.
With all the stains that love can leave on the heart, Ophuls doesn’t forget that a little mordant humour allows some breathing room – if not for the characters, then at least for the audience. In the tableau with Marie the maid and Alfred the young man, she asks him whether there have been other women in the apartment he secures for their rendezvous. “The building is 50 years old”, he responds dryly.
In program notes for an Ophuls festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York in 1999, Kent Jones wrote: “Ophuls understood, perhaps better than any other filmmaker, the importance of surfaces. But he also knew that society, with its conventions and ceremonies, was nothing more than a thin membrane over a procession of hearts beating in desperate time.” These hearts beat so strongly in La ronde that their owners tremble, so visibly that their partners seem frightened by it. Why, when they themselves also tremble deeply from within? These are characters who speak eloquently of love even if they don’t fully understand it. But who does? Our game, omniscient narrator, who strolls through the frames with the same sweep and fluid movement as the earnestly restless camera, is the only one who understands. Yes, Ophuls understood the importance of surfaces, but he knew – somehow – that what lay underneath gave life to those surfaces. Jones again: “Ophuls created moments that gave form to something that was far beyond the reach of most filmmakers – the apparent permanence of feelings versus the transience of existence”.
If the word sublime still means anything, then it is the only word that describes La ronde. Only five years separate La ronde from the end of World War II, but in tone, spirit and sensibility, it is as far removed from the ravages of war as possible. In fact, the film is as timeless as love itself, a supreme gesture by one of the world’s great filmmakers, and a tribute to love’s enduring ability to confound as it fulfills and to break hearts as often as it makes them beat faster with the dread of love’s onset.
La ronde (1950 France 93 mins)
Prod Co: Films Sacha Gordine Prod: Sacha Gordine, Ralph Baum Dir: Max Ophuls Scr: Max Ophuls, Jacques Natanson, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play Das Reigen Phot: Christian Matras Ed: Léonide Azar Prod Des: Jean d’Eaubonne Mus: Oscar Strauss
Cast: Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Daniel Gélin, Danielle Derrieux, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Jean-Louis Barrault, Isa Miranda, Gérard Philipe