LA RONDE (Max Ophüls, 1950)

From Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen Max Ophüls has created a rueful, wistful meditation on the transience of love, implicitly, life’s transience. It is love’s merry-go-round suited to a waltz—a haunting waltz by Oscar Straus. More: the film itself is a waltz, lovely, lilting, passing, passing into sadness and melancholy: the inevitable end to a waltz. Each romantic couple in turn dissolves; one partner moves on to another partner, while the latter’s predecessor vanishes, having lost his or her place on the merry-go-round. (The film’s soft grays, especially in faux-exterior shots, seem to encourage couples to dissolve and individuals to disappear—or, perhaps, are the result of these happenings.) However, the courtly Count and Army lieutenant (exquisitely played by Gérard Philipe), who leaves one partner to go off on a binge, ends up with the first character to get off the merry-go-round at the beginning of the film, Léocardie (Simone Signoret, nearly as haunting as the waltz), a solemn prostitute.
     We are in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. In charge of the merry-go-round is the . . . well, what is he? Beautifully acted by Anton Walbrook, he is the storyteller, stage manager, film director, editor and projectionist. His job, I would say, is to hold back tragedy as best he can. He pops up in other guises: coachman, waiter, servant, etc.; and sometimes as the carousel operator he shares the same frame as one of the characters. This is Ophüls’s delicately postmodernist film; and yet it dreamily conjures the past—a past the memory or dream of which it hopes to keep from dissolving. Opposing this attempt is recent European history: the war, France’s Occupation, the Holocaust.
     One is lost when watching a film by him if one forgets that Max Ophüls was Jewish.

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