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In the too-brief life and art of Max Ophuls (1902–57), La ronde was a momentous film, a turning point. It represented a homecoming of sorts, though “home” was a rather fluid concept for Ophuls, who was born in Germany, worked in the theater there and in Austria during the twenties, made films in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands in the thirties, and spent the forties in the United States. La ronde was made in France, where the filmmaker had been a citizen since 1938 but had not lived for a decade; it was an adaptation of perhaps the most famous and most scandalous play of fin de siècle Vienna, Reigen, by Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931); its cast consisted mostly of French actors but also included the Italian Isa Miranda, who had starred in his marvelous La signora di tutti (1934), and one echt Viennese, Anton Walbrook. It was, like Ophuls himself, thoroughly, unmistakably, unapologetically European, and you can almost hear him sigh with pleasure to be back on his home turf of the Old World. He never again strayed far from the Continent, his terra firma.
Schnitzler’s play—written in 1897 and 1898, privately printed in 1900, published in 1903, first performed (in Budapest) in 1912, and not staged in Vienna until 1921—was ideal material for the filmmaker’s return to his roots. It’s an ingenious piece of dramatic construction. In the first of its ten scenes, a prostitute picks up a soldier, who in the second scene romances a chambermaid, who in the next scene is ravished by her young employer, and so on until the end, when a count spends the night with the streetwalker from the opening scene and the play comes full circle. The elegant structure manages to convey both the transience of individual passions and the durability of passion itself as a motivating force in human behavior. Love doesn’t last, but it makes the world—the hermetic little world of this play, anyway—go round.
This wry romantic fatalism was Schnitzler’s characteristic tone, and Ophuls’s too. Just a couple of years before La ronde, the filmmaker had evoked something approaching that mood in his second Hollywood movie, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), which was adapted from a story by another Viennese, Stefan Zweig. But the picture, though directed with uncommon grace, was a flop: its sensibility may have been too delicate, too ruefully Middle European, for American audiences of the day, and to Ophuls its failure must have seemed a bad omen for his prospects in the American studio system. (His next—and last—two Hollywood movies were the remarkable, and too little known, film noirs Caught and The Reckless Moment, both distinguished by their relative lack of violence and by their extraordinary sensitivity to the nuances of the characters’ decidedly mixed motives.)
So Max Ophuls came home and, in a gesture conscious or subconscious, picked up almost exactly where he’d left off when the rise of Adolf Hitler rudely truncated his career in the German film industry. (He was a Jew, and an artistic, sophisticated Jew besides: the sort of person the Nazis liked to pillory as “decadent.”) His last film before he left his native land was a tragic tale of adultery and foolish honor called Liebelei (1932); it was set in Vienna and based on a play by Schnitzler. Liebelei is a beautiful film, perhaps a perfect one, but its mood is dark, mournful. La ronde treats many of the same themes in a lighter and more playful manner, and it’s clear that Ophuls, after nearly two decades of exile, was ready to play, in the way that suited him best.
And what that meant was a highly theatrical film with moments of wit and moments of sadness; plenty of sex and plenty of irony; restless, almost unbridled camera movement; and a keen-eyed appreciation of human frailty. Ophuls shot the picture entirely in the studio, and he and his coscenarist, Jacques Natanson, added one more character to the ten in Schnitzler’s play: an unnamed, godlike figure, played by Walbrook, who, assuming several different guises, guides all the heedless lovers through their various intrigues, philosophizes between scenes, and, not incidentally, operates a festive-looking but occasionally balky merry-go-round. (When one of the male characters finds himself unable to perform in bed, Walbrook has to make a few repairs so the love carousel can keep turning.) This modest, self-effacing manipulator is, of course, a stand-in for the director, prodding and gently cajoling the puzzled creatures who wander through the world he’s made without even knowing that their world’s a stage. His joy is watching them hit their marks.
François Truffaut, in a moving obituary for Ophuls, wrote: “He was not the virtuoso or the aesthete or the decorative filmmaker he has been called. He didn’t make ten or eleven shots with a single sweep of the camera merely to ‘look good’ . . . Like his friend Jean Renoir, Ophuls always sacrificed technique to the actor. Ophuls thought actors were at their best and least theatrical when forced to some physical effort—climbing stairs, running through the countryside, or dancing throughout a long single take.” And although the fact is that Ophuls did on occasion indulge himself with camera movements that were, let’s say, tenuously motivated—part of the pleasure of his movies is that the sheer sensual exuberance of filmmaking sometimes gets the better of him—Truffaut is essentially right. La ronde is a supremely graceful piece of work, impeccably staged by Ophuls and shot with almost preternatural fluency by cinematographer Christian Matras and camera operator Alain Douarinou, but it is at its core a celebration of the peculiar, elusive art of acting.
On the evidence here, the state of that art in Europe in 1950 was pretty robust. The cast of La ronde is a potent mix of up-and-comers like Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Odette Joyeux, and Daniel Gélin, veteran character actors like Fernand Gravey, and the established stars Walbrook, Miranda, Simone Simon, Danielle Darrieux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Gérard Philipe. They’re good, and they have to be, because Schnitzler’s structure, in which every actor (except Walbrook) plays two different love scenes with two different partners, requires each of them to assume what amounts to a dual role. The sneaky, slightly uncomfortable truth of La ronde is that our personalities are not quite as constant as we’d like to think they are: we don’t act the same way with everybody—and that goes double when the act of love is involved.
It’s amazing, for example, to witness the change in Barrault’s character, a poet and playwright, from his first scene, in which he floridly seduces a young woman (Joyeux), who is perhaps a bit less naive than she seems, to his next, in which he conducts a fairly tense romantic negotiation with another lover, a haughty actress of a certain age (Miranda). In the first seduction, of a woman to whom he feels confidently superior, the poet is animated, verbose, inordinately pleased with himself: he struts, he preens, he composes impromptu couplets. And Barrault, his inventive, gestural, Comédie-Française-style acting in full cry, is so funny you can even forgive the character’s insufferable pomposity. But in the second scene, the writer is hesitant, still, tentative, as if he were afraid of putting a foot wrong: his actress lover is a force of nature (or of artifice) more powerful than he is, and he knows he’s overmatched.
There are subtler but no less dramatic shifts in Darrieux’s two wonderful scenes, the first with an ardent young paramour she’s trying—and failing—to dump (Gélin), and the second with her stuffy husband (Gravey), who, while steadfastly refusing to admit to himself that he has suspicions about her fidelity, is nonetheless a tad defensive about the on-and-off nature of their connubial relationship. In both cases, the woman winds up yielding to the man she’s with, each of them a man who falls far short of satisfying her deepest desires, and Darrieux lets you see every tiny variation in the strength of her resolve, from firm determination to what-the-hell surrender and everything in between.
Her superbly naturalistic performance—her style couldn’t be more different from Barrault’s—is, in a way, a study for the great role Ophuls handed her three years later in his masterpiece The Earrings of Madame de . . . Between those films, he made the anthology Le plaisir (1952), also with Darrieux, drawn from the stories of Guy de Maupassant, which is a shade less frothy than La ronde but a good deal less somber than the heartbreaking Madame de . . .—the movie in which, in a sense, he completed his return to the world he’d left behind in 1932, the romantic-tragic world of Liebelei, the dying Europe he helplessly loved.
And then, after some theater work and one more film, the ambitious picaresque Lola Montès (1955), it was over. Max Ophuls’s heart gave out on March 26, 1957, not long after he had finished staging Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro in Hamburg and before he could begin shooting a movie about the life of Modigliani. (The film, Montparnasse 19, was eventually completed by Jacques Becker.) His death came too soon, but he was, after all, a connoisseur of the ephemeral, an artist who seemed to know in his bones that everything is impermanent, that life is fragile, faithless, as fickle as the busy lovers in La ronde. And that that’s what’s beautiful about it.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies. He was the film critic at the Nation, a staff writer for the New Yorker, a critic at large for GQ, and has taught writing at Princeton University. His work has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Village Voice, and Sight & Sound, among other publications. He is now a frequent contributor to the New York Times.