Intentionally or not, Max Ophuls’s La Ronde, adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen, must be one of the most radical films ever made by a major studio. The structure of both play and film is simple. After an introduction, the Master of Ceremonies (Anton Walbrook) introduces the viewer to a prostitute (Simone Signoret) and a soldier (Serge Reggiani) who form the first of the story’s couples. After their brief liaison, the story follows the soldier, who then has an encounter with a maid (Simone Simon), whom we follow into her affair with the son of her master (Daniel Gélin), and so on until the story comes full circle by returning to the prostitute with another client (Gérard Phillipe).
If the story is simple, Ophuls’s treatment is anything but. From the first, he emphasizes the film’s artificiality. For example, when Walbrook starts the story, he is dressed in contemporary clothes, but as he crosses a sound stage through a chaotic jumble of movie equipment and set dressings, he eventually reveals a costume appropriate for the story’s period setting. He speaks (and sings) directly to the camera, and as he shows up repeatedly in walk on roles, he plays as much to the viewer as to the other characters. There is never any attempt to hide his identity. In fact, we are constantly reminded the film is a construction, so that it is impossible to become entirely involved or to sympathize with the characters and action.
This ironic, reflexive edge achieves the emotional distancing that Godard and others have advocated as an alternative to the empathy underpinning narrative films, thereby “freeing” the viewer to recognize the reality of his/her condition. (Why we should want to is another matter.) Ophuls has no such ambition. Instead of the heavy humorlessness of Godard’s most committed work, Ophuls’s touch is grace itself, which does not mean he lets either the characters or the viewer off the hook. Quite the contrary, none of the characters is entirely likable, and a few are downright obnoxious. Therefore, because the film can be a touch knowing, sometimes almost tedious, you definitely have to be in the mood to watch it.
The cast of European screen and stage idols makes it possible for all to stand out while paradoxically furthering the emotional distance, as if their incendiary brilliance makes traditional identification impossible. These are not ordinary people by any stretch of the imagination. Yet as radiant as Danielle Darrieux and Signoret may be, it is Walbrook’s quiet, restrained irony that steals the show. Which is only appropriate, for he is both our guide and our surrogate in creating the story’s web of sex, deceit and humor. The results are not for everyone. Even those who like La Ronde may be a little disturbed by its cynicism. Underneath it all, however, beats the heart of a Romantic for whom cynicism is merely the injured, disappointed, smartest form of love.