Thursday 25 January 2024

On demand: "La Ronde"

I'm amazed it's taken so long for me to get round to 1950's 
La Ronde - this may be the last of world cinema's Golden Age titles to come my way - but better late than never. As is clear from its wholly seductive opening gambit, a brisk spin around a stage on a set representing Vienna's backstreets in the dapper company of Chevalier-aping narrator Anton Walbrook, the spell Max Ophüls' film casts remains a potent one. In its form, it's something like the portmanteau films that were coming into vogue as the world made its peace and its creatives worked together anew, but this is a portmanteau accentuated by exquisite tailoring, on set and in postproduction: a dreamlike flow of encounters, couplings, hook-ups and near-misses - encompassing everyone from a lady of the night (Simone Signoret) to a carousing count (Gérard Philipe) - which collectively represent subtle variations on the theme of desire. Some of these are as tentative as the fumbling lovers at their centre; others tempestuous; others still a dream-within-a-dream. The whole is like spending ninety minutes inside a mind wandering off in different erotic directions: the most sensual of diversions.

It would merit study as a film without a plot in the established Hollywood sense of the term. Ophüls fires off his characters as if they were Cupid's arrows, some sticking in the heart of the screen, others disappearing off into the night; what this sinuous camera really wants to record - with only one eye on the era's censors - are the cruelties and hypocrisies of love, and also its consoling kindnesses, the full gamut of ways in which we rub up against one another, and sometimes, if we're lucky, nudge one another along. In so doing, La Ronde also illustrates the advantages to be gained from the abandonment of conventional plotting: more room for an easy-come-easy-go philosophy, a sense of how the world turns beyond the stories we tell, a lightness of touch that proves as alluring on film as it can be in life (and, indeed, in the boudoir). It is the fate of all of us in our lifetimes to play the roles of pursuer and pursued, jilter and jilted; yet whenever their liaisons don't pan out, Ophüls and the film shrug their shoulders in unison, and try their luck elsewhere. To the millions of words of commendation La Ronde has inspired over the years, I can add only these: had I seen this film in my youth, it would have spared me a lot of unnecessary pain and tears.

La Ronde is available to rent via Prime Video and the BFI Player.

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