Monday, January 03, 2011

Underrated Movie #101: La Ronde

Title: La Ronde
Year: 1950
Director: Max Ophuls
Writers: Jacques Natanson and Max Ophuls from the play by Arthur Schnitzler
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Daniel Gelin, Danielle Darrieux, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Jean-Louis Barrault, Isa Miranda, Gerard Philipe

The Story: Ophuls adapts Arthur Schnitzler’s perpetually shocking 1900 play, about a chain of duplicitous sexual encounters, taking us though every level of Vienna’s hierarchy and back again. Along the way he artfully dissects the language of desire without ever chilling its basic naughtiness.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was hard to find on VHS and not on DVD at all until recently. Ophuls has generally suffered from poor availability on DVD.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Ophuls is famous for long, sumptuous travelling shots, but these camera moves don’t convey the lyrical freedom that other directors might create, since we often begin and end on baroque compositions, in which characters are claustrophobically enmeshed in a dense collage of objects and shadows. The result enforces the theme: the ways in which liberation itself can be a mousetrap.
  2. It’s shocking how little has changed in the world of seduction in 110 years, despite several sexual revolutions and counter-revolutions. Schinitzler and Ophuls explore the central paradox of civilization: all of the rules seem to be set up to empower men and disempower women, and yet men are always trying to flee from those rules while women are always trying to enforce them, so something must not be as it seems.
  3. The encounters are fleeting, and at first they seem as meaningless to us as they are to the lovers, but soon their meaning deepens through sly repetition. We see a lover innocently offer a protestation once, and believe them, then they repeat the line just as innocently in the next encounter, and this time we’re shocked at their audacity. Soon, we hear another lover say a similar line for the first time and we instantly suspect them, too. The film takes us from innocence, to cynicism and back around again to the non-judgmental magnanimity of the worldly-wise.
  4. One of the ways in which Schnitzler’s later interpreters dared not be as “modern” as he was in 1900 is clear from the fact that this is one of the few stage adaptations that was intentionally made stagier on film than it ever was on the actual stage, just to give us some distance from the hothouse goings-on. Ophuls adds Walbrook’s character, a puckishly self-aware narrator wandering backstage from set to set who gives us some philosophical perspective (and crucially gives us something to cut away to, something Ophuls obviously has to do often…)
  5. Of course, I talked before about the problem with filmmakers who use post-modernism as an excuse to not ask their audience to feel anything, but this movie puts a twist on that. It’s all about how the post-modern condition of cosmopolitan life inhibits our ability to feel. We see how every lover feels they must pretend to be someone they’re not, which is the only real punishment for their promiscuity, because it means that no one ever gets to enjoy themselves half as much as they would if they could just own up to their own desire.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Ophuls is best remembered for his European movies, and his American movies can be hard to find, but they’re well worth tracking down, especially Letter From An Unknown Woman and Caught.

How Available Is It?: The Criterion Collection has finally blessed us with a fine DVD, complete with a commentary and several video essays that illuminate Ophuls’s techniques.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: School-Day Romances!


santina amato said...

Thanks Matt for your isnight into this amazing film! A friend of mine recently steered me to it as I am doing research on carousels through history and various mediums (film, literature, art, etc), and this film is so fitting for my research. If you know of any other films that use the theme of the carousel or an actual carousel, please do pass the info on. Would love to hear what you know.

Matt Bird said...

Sure, Santina: Strangers on a Train, Mary Poppins, The Little Fugitive, the final episode of the first season of Mad Men ("The Wheel") talks a lot about carousels... That's all that occurs to me right off.

santina amato said...

thanks Matt. Will definitely check them out! It was that scene in Mad Men that got me interested in researching the carousel for my art projects. Funny how popular culture influences everyone!