La Ronde (1950) & Caught (1949) – released as part of Second Sight’s The Max Ophüls Collection (2006) – first published by Little White Lies.
In the sequence that opens La Ronde (1950), a dapper gentleman (Anton Walbrook) walks through a dark, mist-shrouded urban centre and introduces himself to camera as the film’s all-seeing narrator. Passing both an open-air theatre and some film lights, he wonders aloud whether we are on a stage, in a studio, or in a real street, before announcing that we are travelling to Vienna in 1900. He changes costume before our eyes, night suddenly dissolves into broad daylight, and we move on to a springtime carousel where he sings of the film’s theme – love’s merry-go-round – and then gives directions to a character (Simone Signoret) about her part in the next scene.
Max Ophüls has shot this entire prologue in an impossibly fluid five-minute single take, lending an artificial unity to his Brechtian ruptures of time, space, form and genre. For while Ophüls knowingly preserves something of the theatricality of his prime source (Arthur Schnitzler’s scandalous 1897 play Reigen), La Ronde is, from start to finish, an insistently cinematic affair – as well as being a showcase for all the finest qualities of a filmmaker whose outspoken admirers have included Truffaut, Godard, Scorsese, Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson.
La Ronde is a film of miraculous incongruities. It is all about sex, but the act itself is always inventively elided (at one point, the narrator is shown literally cutting a steamy sequence from the film reel with a pair of scissors, muttering the word “censorship” to himself). Its ensemble characters are merely stock types, but their endless erotic pursuits, displacements and disappointments remain recognisably real. Its whole outlook on human desire is jaded and cynical, and yet the tone is breezily charming throughout. Here, love is bittersweet all round.
Caught (1949) shows a side of Ophüls that is formally much more conventional than La Ronde, if thematically no less daring. It depicts two contrasting male characters, and the ambivalent woman trapped in her desire for both of them. Pursuing a life dreamt up from the pages of a fashion magazine, self-invented charm school graduate Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) marries possessive, sociopathic industrialist Smith Ohlrig (modelled on Howard Hughes, played by Robert Ryan), but then flees his prison-like mansion to reinvent herself again as a receptionist for conscientious, hard-working pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason).
Amidst Ophüls’ precise, at times deliberately oppressive mise-en-scène, these three characters play out the contradictions of the American dream itself. If Ohlrig emerges a Kane-like tyrant, then ‘Leonora’, in all her ambiguous ambitions, proves just as troubling, so that it becomes difficult to tell which is Frankenstein and which the monster. A melodrama shot like a film noir, Caught is without question a Hollywood film, but Ophüls darkens the obligatory happy ending by throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
© Anton Bitel