Saturday 12 September 2009

La Ronde (1950)

Director: Max Ophüls
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Daniel Gelin, Danielle Darrieux, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Jean-Louis Barrault, Isa Miranda and Gerard Philipe

As much as I've come to admire French cinema, I've never seen a Max Ophüls movie. He was born and died in Germany, but made his name and spent most of his career in France, hardly surprising given that Germany was hardly a good place for a Jew in 1933. Of course France wasn't much better before long, so after a few French movies in the thirties he found his way west to Hollywood. His best known American film is Letter from an Unknown Woman, with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. La Ronde was the first film he made back in France and it was followed by a few films that have all gone on to be highly regarded and featured heavily in various Top 100 lists.

The opening shot is blissful, as Anton Walbrook walks us through a masterpiece of choreography, full of the tracking shots that Ophüls is apparently well known for. It begins in the present day and ends up in Vienna in 1900, via a city, a stage, film set, a street, a carousel and a costume change. Through the power of cinema, we change from night to day to night, the seasons turn to Spring and there's even time for a song before we're introduced to Simone Signoret. Yet, amazingly, this is all one single shot. If this is what Ophüls does, then I've been seriously missing out.

Walbrook is our host, who doesn't really take part in our story, but guides it like God or Death or the Devil through its circle, which is what La Ronde means. It's a dance of love somewhat like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and he calls the dance as our storyteller. The story begins with the girl and the soldier, the girl being a prostitute called Leocadie, who entices a soldier called Franz down to a spot under the bridge, giving it away for free because he's in the forces. Come Saturday night though, he romances a maid called Marie at a dance and the circle begins. All too soon, Viennese soldiers obviously not being much to write home about, Walbrook explains to Marie that she's lost her job for sneaking out and promptly guides her to a new one two months later where she'll delight Alfred, the young man of the house, after his parents leave for the country.

Time means nothing in this film and neither does anything else except the circle. It's a pleasant tale, all about love and sex and pleasure, but in other hands it could be something utterly different. It reminds me of the beginning of Stephen King's The Stand in which character A infects character B who then infects character C and so on, until there aren't any letters left in this or any other alphabet. Of course, the connection here being sex, this would make La Ronde something of an STD. It's all in the perspective, of course, the French seeing it as love and the Americans as a disease.

The cast is as star studded as anything I know, but being a French film from 1950 I don't recognise many of the names. Leocadie is Simone Signoret, the beginning and end of the circle, who is probably the biggest name in the film. She didn't arrive in the west until 1959 when she won the Best Actress Oscar for an English film, Room at the Top, though people like Alfred Hitchcock were well aware of her achievements in films like Les Diaboliques. I know Marie the maid too, as she's Simone Simon from Cat People and Mademoiselle Fifi, but this marks the first time I've seen her in anything not produced by Val Lewton.

Everyone else is new to me. Franz is Serge Raggiani, an Italian who became a well known chanson singer in France in addition to his acting. He became a lifelong friend of Signoret's and I'll see them both again in Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. Alfred is Daniel Gélin, who would soon become Maria Schneider's father, but at this point had a decade behind him in film. His best roles would come in the fifties, it seems, though I've only seen him in Hitchcock's remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart.

Best of all the cast may be Danielle Darrieux as Emma Breitkopf, the married woman that Alfred seduces, though perhaps that's partly because she seems to have the most screen time. She's still acting today at the age of 92 with three films in the works, but found her way to the screen as far back as 1931 when she was 14. I'm now looking forward even more to another acclaimed Max Ophüls film, The Earrings of Madame de... which TCM are screening next week, which sees her in the lead opposite Charles Boyer. Emma's husband Charles is Fernand Gravey, the only liaison in this film that takes place within the bounds of matrimony. Gravey had been in film since 1913 but this is my first of his 71 films.

After La Ronde, Odette Joyeux, who plays Anna, Charles Breitkopf's mistress, would only appear once more on the big screen, after an acclaimed career, but her son Claude Brasseur would become a great actor in his own right with two Césars to his name. Anna quickly moves onto a wannabe poet called Robert Kuhlenkampf. He's Jean-Louis Barrault, who had already played the lead in Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise but preferred the stage, going on to found numerous theatres throughout France. Robert pursues Charlotte, an actress played by Isa Miranda, who I know only as the Countess in Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood. Perhaps that started here as she seduces a Count, played by Gérard Philipe, who I don't know at all but who died less than a decade later. Of course the Count drunkenly finds his way to Leocadie the prostitute, thus completing la ronde.

So many names, all of which I'm sure I'll soon see much more of and some of whom I'm very much looking forward to revisiting, Danielle Darrieux especially. The glue between all these little dalliances is Anton Walbrook, the only name I know really well, having seen him in many films. He was born in Austria and died in Germany but made his name in England, after he moved west to avoid the Nazis. He was the lead in the original English version of Gaslight, which was even better than the excellent American remake four years later, then played in a string of Powell & Pressburger movies, from the lesser known 49th Parallel to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and especially The Red Shoes. All these came before La Ronde, which was his first film back across the Channel to be followed by a number of others, including what seems to be regarded as the best Max Ophüls of them all, Lola Montès.

The story is charming and engages at many points, though some parts are notably more engaging than others. Some are dwelt on while others zip on by while we're busy blinking. It was the first film version of a play by Arthur Schnitzler, written over half a century earlier in 1897, one has gone on to be remade a number of times on stage and screen in a number of countries. Roger Vadim made his own version in 1964 with his wife Jane Fonda. The Germans restored the original title for their 1973 version, Reigen (with Maria Schneider playing the mistress of the husband of the wife that her father Daniel Gélin seduces in this film 23 years earlier). Hollywood took note with 1992's Chain of Desire and even the Iranians made a version in 2000 called Dayereh.

I think what will stay with me most is that opening scene, which is five full minutes of magical choreography and cinematography all wrapped up in one amazing shot. The carousel that introduces us to Simone Signoret is obviously another take on the circle, but I think the way this scene was shot is another. It feels like the camera was mounted in the middle of a set and merely rotated as Anton Walbrook moves through this introductory city that becomes Vienna. That puts us in the middle watching the circle, just as Walbrook himself does as the raconteur watching his circle progress from character to character. The film is great, this opening sequence is greater.

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