LA RONDE (1950) Starring Anton Wallbrook, Simone Signoret, Simone Simon (from Cat People) Fernand Gravey and Danielle Darrieux. Directed by Max Ophuls.
Well, this was quite the film. There is much here to enjoy. Beautiful, poetic, witty dialogue. Breaking down of the fourth wall. Strong female characters that revel in their sexuality and the power it has over the men in their lives. Scenes of passion that build slowly, almost in a suspenseful manner. Lots of thoughts by the characters about the nature of love and casual sex, marriage, infidelity, and even women who, while not using the "contemporary term" indulging in a "friends with benefits" situation with other men. This is definitely a dialogue driven film, but it is beautifully delicious, witty, thoughtful and passionate dialogue.
The film starts with our mysterious puppet master/raconteur played by Anton Wallbrook. His entrance is terrific. Walking the foggy streets of Vienna, he engages the audience immediately by asking us what part he plays:
"What part do I play in this story? Author? Accomplice? Passer by?" As he soon reveals..."I am you...I am the personification of your desire to know everything"
His clothes are contemporary, but he slowly starts to change his clothes to become more "period friendly". As he starts to blend in to his surroundings in almost a chameleon like fashion (which he does periodically throughout the film) he asks the audience...
"But just where are we? On a stage? A film set? One doesn't know any more."
It's dialogue like this that slowly transports us to an almost magical place that seems both real, and not real. This gives the film a wonderful element of fantasy.
As it turns out, we have been transported to 1900 Vienna. As our Raconteur happily conveys..."Ahh, the past. I adore the past. It's so much more peaceful than the present and so much more certain than the future"
It's dialogue like that that drew me into this film immediately.
Soon, the mysterious puppet master takes us to a rather magical merry go round which is the engine of the film. It travels in a circle, or "La Ronde" as does the films plot. Connecting all the vignettes of stories of love and affairs. As the narrator turns the merry go round, a prostitute mysteriously appears. Wallbrook leads her off of the magical carrousel and tells her that she will meet a soldier which she does. They make love in a dark alley. He must leave her to return to his barracks on time or else he forfeits his weekend leave. This is the beginning of the first segment of the film "The Soldier and The Girl". After their tryst, we go to the next segment in the series of tales...The Chambermaid and The Young Man. In this segment, the soldier meets a girl at a dance. As he leaves for war, they continue to write. Meanwhile she gets a job as a chambermaid for a rich couple and their very attractive son. This scene is very steamy indeed.
Each segment features one person from the previous story having an affair with the next person and so on and so on until the story returns to the first character. At the end of each characters "coupling", the Raconteur's marry go round starts turning to lead us to the next story. While we don't see any actual sex, we see characters entering bedrooms, and many scenes of blissful, post coital conversations that are very funny and full of wit. Simone Simon is wonderful as the seemingly innocent maid who under the surface is boiling with passion. However, the scenes with Darrieux is the real attraction in this film.
It is unabashedly sexy, scandalous, romantic and just plain fun. Walbrook doesn't just tell the story, he sings it. He manipulates the characters, leading them to their respective trysts, as well as running interference to protect those trysts and to champion the illicit love that permeates the film. While it seems very adult in its subject matter, it is filled with a delightful mood and playfulness. It's almost disney'esque with its light hearted, playful tone and in its very esoteric storytelling.
From the opening credits when we hear the music, it sets a tone of fun. The music by Oscar Straus is also very exceptional in how he captures the mood of playfulness of the characters and actually is able to augment the suspense we feel when we wonder "will they or won't they". The cinematography is top notch by Christian Matras. The film is so fluid and surreal in its transitions from scene to scene. Each segment starts with a level of slight uncomfortability which then melts into a passion that both parties are more than willing...no..desperate to engage in. It's a beautiful film visually, full of the cream of the crop of beautiful French actresses who are extremely talented and fascinating to watch. I couldn't take my eyes off of this film and enjoyed it just as much on second viewing. This film is about a wonderful love of life, passion and sex. With wonderfully fleshed out women who aren't clichés or "sleazy" but simply looking to escape the mundane and to seek, voraciously, all that love, life and passion has to offer them. It's sexy, witty and just plain fun. Everyone in the film turns in a great performance.
Some of the segments move faster than others to be sure. Very slickly produced and very enjoyable. I've never seen anything like it. However...I can see how the people who enforced the code at the time made it difficult for the film to get any sort of wide release in the US. Highly recommended.