"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 16, 2011

"La Ronde" (“Merry-Go-Round”, 1950) by Max Ophuls (Movie review)

A sort of Master of Ceremonies (Anton Walbrook), standing next to a Merry-Go-Round, sings to a beautiful waltz melody how love keeps going round and round. We are in the Vienna of about 1900. Yes, he will show us, he says, and there comes already our first hero, a soldier.

While the MC steps back, from the shadows arises a woman, a prostitute (Simone Signoret). She accosts the soldier and promises him a freebie. The military man has little time but doesn't say no to this unexpected windfall, so the woman takes him down the stairs under the bridge. That is the first short story of this "ode to carnal knowledge."

The second story follows the same soldier on his day off, when he spends some intimate moments on a bench with his girlfriend, a parlor maid. Soon the Master of Ceremonies introduces us already to story three (no complaint about speed in this movie!), which follows the parlor maid to her place of employment with a bourgeois family. The parents are out of town, so the son tries to seduce the maid, with quick results - or did she seduce him? Next story, and now the same son has furtively rented a small apartment where he has invited a married woman (Danielle Darrieux), who arrives doubly veiled for she is taking a big risk. And our dear young man is so nervous to give an excellent performance with this experienced woman that, well, things don't go as intended... a clue is that at the very same moment the Merry-Go-Round runs out of steam.

Her husband, a rich industrialist, by the way, is just about to seduce a young girl in the private room of a discrete restaurant. This doesn't mean they are even, for double morality was still going strong in the Europe of 1900. And so on, and so forth, we still get the escapades of a poet, an actress and a count (Gerard Philipe). The snake bites its own tail when the count meets the prostitute from the first story. We see how love transcends the boundaries of class, both common soldier and count visit the same prostitute. But isn't this what keeps the earth spinning?

La Ronde (“Merry-Go-Round”) is a beautiful, whimsical film made in 1950 by Max Ophuls (1902-1957), the first European film made by this German director after a 10-year sojourn in the U.S. It is a film with light irony, but no sarcasm. We are all weak, so let's smile about life, instead of setting strict rules for others. The Master of Ceremonies shows understanding and forgiveness for the foibles of humankind. It is a light film in the positive sense of the word: a film that for a few moments takes the burden of life from our shoulders and makes us feel featherlight ourselves. But there is also a bittersweet note, as all romantic illusions of love are shown to be false. At the same time, it is a nostalgic film about European elegance that had been swept away by two terrible wars.

Note: La Ronde was based on a play (Reigen) by German author Arthur Schnitzler (see my post on Schnitzler's novella Dream Story). Though written in 1900, the play could not be performed until 1920 – and even then Schnitzler was attacked as a pornographer. Of course, there is nothing that could not be publicly said or shown today in either play or film. Ophuls plays with the censorship issue by having his master of ceremonies literally cut a certain love scene from the film. Even so, the film was censored the first time it was shown in the U.S. That was in 1950, when murder, suicide and all kinds of violence were already normal cinematic fare. Why is violence in our warped society more acceptable than lovemaking?

Some interesting things:
  • When husband and wife lie in bed, they each have a gaslight above their head that is operated by a string. A nice 19th c. detail.
  • The industrialist drives what must have been one of the first cars, as it is operated by pokes and not yet a steering wheel.
  • Max Ophuls would go on to make Le Plaisir, Lola Montes and The Earrings of Madame de. He died at the still young age of 54. His real name was Max Oppenheimer.
  • The waltz music was composed by the then 80-year old Oscar Strauss.
  • The film was remade in 1964 by Roger Vadim.
Other films by Ophuls discussed in this blog: LiebeleiLetter from an Unknown Woman - Caught - The Earrings of Madame De... - Le Plaisir.
La Ronde is available in the Criterion Collection.
(revised August 2014)