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1950. Directed by Max Ophuls. Written by Jacques Natanson and Max Ophuls. With Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Daniel Gelin, Danielle Darrieux, Jean-Louis Barrault
Arthur Schnitzler's infamous play (written 1896, first performed 1912), denounced as subversive "Jewish filth" and an insult to the Viennese, becomes, in the hands of two more Jews, a rueful period piece. Ophuls makes turn-of-the-century Vienna look like a far more gracious world than our own, though the self-deception, misplaced passion, and sense of loss he finds there are certainly timeless.
The movie, like the play, follows a series of couples as they meet, make love, and separate. The Girl of the Streets ducks under a bridge with The Soldier; in the next scene the Soldier takes up with The Maid; then The Maid seduces The Young Gentleman; The Young Gentleman trysts with The Young Wife (not his), etc. (Just what the Centers for Disease Control does not like to see!) In the last vignette The Count runs into The Girl of the Streets and the circle closes.
I mention this film to Movies-SeivoM because Ophuls and Natanson have moved back a step and put Schnitzler's play into a frame that emphasizes artifice and imposes a sort of determinism. They have added a narrator, played by Anton Walbrook, who philosophizes, introduces the action, links the vignettes and sometimes intrudes into them (he turns up as part of a musical ensemble, rides by on a carousel)--always observing, regretting, accepting. Kind of "Our Town"'s Stage Manager in tails. It's he who decides to transport us back to Vienna--a snap of his fingers and the scene changes. It's he who urges characters to get on with it-- "I've got to keep my carousel turning," he says. It's he who hums the haunting waltz, at once nostalgic and relentless, that seems to propel the action. But mostly, his function is to remind us that we're watching something theatrical. At the beginning he outlines the story he wants to tell us and asks, "Shall it be a play?" (Camera glides past a little proscenium, like you might see in a European park.) "Shall it be cinema?" (We see a silhouette of a movie camera, and a light.)
At one point, when a couple falls into bed and the scene fades out, we then see Walbrook examining a strip of film and snipping out a bunch of frames with a scissors. He gives us a look: Sorry, I'm responsible for keeping things at least semi-respectable around here. This is fascinating. Is he inside the movie or above it? How can he "edit" the film that is the only place he himself exists? What if the scissors slipped and he cut himself out? Would the whole movie implode?
The presence of this world-wise director-surrogate, along with numerous other endistancing devices, reminds us that this movie is not a "filming" of Schnitzler's "La Ronde" (which would be an absurd project in a ruined, post-Hitler Europe). I wouldn't even say that it's "version" of La Ronde. Instead, it's a sort of critical essay that takes "La Ronde" as its text. Ophuls has unearthed a relic of vanished Vienna and presents it to us an artifact-with-commentary, the central exhibit in his own, quite non-Schnitzlerian meditation on romance, disillusionment, and the passage of time.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein