“I’m the personification of your desire to know everything,” says Anton Walbrook as he begins to narrate, or direct, the wistful merry-go-round mechanism of Max Ophüls’s La Ronde, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s cynical, sexual fin de siècle play. Ophüls added this narrator figure to Schnitzler’s scandalous work to give a sense of distance to the material, and Walbrook dominates the film with his sinister elegance and his uncanny, imperious watchfulness. Ophüls places his camera low to the ground as 10 vignettes on carnal love are played out, daisy-chain style, and his lengthy tracking shots exactly express his seize-the-moment point of view, with their headlong, giddy sort of rush forward and back. The camera glides past ornate railings, shrubbery, candelabras and all kinds of bric-a-brac, and it is as if these inanimate objects are audiences to a performance; we can almost hear them whispering to each other. Walbrook’s impresario-like guide highlights the artifice of filmmaking, even pointing out lights and camera equipment for us to see. For Ophüls, the completely artificial, cold beauty of a studio set equals the heartfelt artifice of romantic love.
Each vignette conforms to a tight, outgrowing pattern, so that they each have equal weight, even if Danielle Darrieux’s first segment is the one that lingers in the mind. Her youngish married lady meets a sweetly insecure Daniel Gelin for an assignation; they move to the bedroom, and Ophüls cuts to Walbrook working a carousel. After a few moments, the carousel breaks down. We return to Gelin and Darrieux, staring straight ahead, and we see that he has failed to perform. Frozen, embarrassed, unable to look at her, Gelin speaks of Stendhal, and Darrieux listens to him with a captivating kind of tender amusement, a forbearing, sophisticated gentleness. Then, just at the right moment, she leans forward to check the time, so that her body is touching his, and his potency is restored. The actors had wanted to play the scene in a farcical way, but Ophüls objected; he took Gelin aside and said, “Convey the melancholy of impotence!”
Ophüls is never jaded, or cynical, as Schnitzler often is; he’s a true romantic, and he covers a huge range of male and female types in La Ronde, from Fernand Gravey’s formidable, hypocritical husband to Odette Joyeux’s malleable gal, who cries, “Oh, that naughty champagne! The things it made me do!” after a lascivious private dinner. Ophüls moves close to farce in the segments with Jean-Louis Barrault’s self-important writer and Isa Miranda’s sensual actress, but he returns to “the melancholy of impotence” in the last scene with Gerard Philipe and Simone Signoret, joining two of the most beautiful and generally wasted performers in French cinema in a moment of deliriously pleasurable dissatisfaction. “Happiness doesn’t exist,” says Philipe, in his first segment, and only Ophüls could make that seem like a very happy thought.