As pure fantasy, La Ronde is irresistible. Based on an 1897 Arthur Schnitzler play that follows a chain of romantic rendezvous – from a prostitute to a soldier to a maid and so on, all the way up to a count (and back) – the movie rides the giddy highs of infatuation. Just don’t give much thought to the heartache that begins to creep into one vignette as we rush on to the next. And for heaven’s sake, don’t be so gauche as to even mention anything like unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. That’s the stuff of the real world, not the magical, turn-of-the-century Vienna created here.
Anton Walbrook is our charming guide: part narrator, part matchmaker and genial operator of the carousel that serves as the movie’s central visual metaphor (it even breaks down when one lover has difficulty performing). Introducing each section and sometimes donning a disguise to help the various romances roll along, this Raconteur has the elegance of, well, Anton Walbrook and the Cupidity of Sebastian the crab.
Of course it helps that Walbrook – along with everyone else in the ensemble cast – is being caressed by the camera of director Max Ophuls, returning to France after a brief foray in Hollywood. Ophuls’ technique is often on the nose, but it’s still exhilarating. That rotating carousel is not circle enough for him; at one point, he places two waltzing lovers on a rotating platform and in front of the carousel so that we have two circles in motion at the same time.
In what it means to do – capture the first rush of attraction – La Ronde has few screen equals.
There are also subtler moments – as when a woman delicately removes the two veils she’s wearing and the camera slips closer to her face each time – where Ophuls’ technique is absolutely sublime. Indeed, in what it means to do – capture the first rush of attraction – La Ronde has few screen equals. There is a sequence between a maid (Simone Simon) and the son of her employers (Daniel Gelin) that’s very funny in the way they dance around the social constructs keeping them apart. Mostly, though, it’s intensely erotic (without being graphic). Ophuls knows all he really needs is to have Gelin ask Simon for a cool drink of water, which she brings after delicately letting the faucet run across the underside of her wrist.
Gelin and Simon are both very good – as is Simone Signoret as the prostitute who kicks things off – but by far the standout is Danielle Darrieux as Emma, a married woman who begins an affair with a younger bachelor. (The bachelor is actually Gelin after he’s had that drink of water. See how this works?) In the love-nest apartment Gelin has nervously arranged for them, Darrieux is amusingly patient, an older woman well-schooled in the art of seduction. Shortly thereafter, next to her philandering husband (Fernand Gravey) in their side-by-side beds, she plays the naïve innocent as he launches into a hypocritical lecture about the meaning of marriage. In a movie eager to leave most of its characters behind, Darrieux’s Emma is the one who lingers most.
If La Ronde ultimately feels like a lark, that’s because its vision of love is fairly thin. In fact, you could argue that in its pursuit of the next high, the move is not romantic at all. Despite its obsession with pairing and coupling, La Ronde mostly celebrates the momentary satiation of the self.