MAX OPHUL – The Elegant Genius of Cinema
MAX OPHULS returned to France in 1949. One of the most widely travelled of directors, this German-born film maker had directed films in Germany, Italy and Holland as well as in France which was his home from 1933 till 1940. The war years he had spent in the United States, unable to find work until 1947 when he made the first of his four American films. Like so many of Ophul’s projects, the one which brought him back to France — a version of Balzac’s “La Duchesse de Langeais” to star Greta Garbo — was never realised. Instead Ophuls made La Ronde (1950), his most widely distributed film and one of his greatest successes. It opened the series of works on which his reputation chiefly rests and with it he formed the team of collaborators that remained virtually unchanged until his death. La Ronde was adapted from the play “Reigen” by one of Ophuls’s favourite authors, Arthur Schnitzler. In collaboration with Jacques Natanson, Ophuls has idealised this work, setting it in a fairytale Vienna of 1900. In this film the view of love as a regular interchange of partners (which Ophuls shared with Renoir) is developed into a ring of encounters linking the characters, each of whom passes from one lover to another. The film is full of cynicism and worldly wit and Ophuls takes an apparent delight in the manipulation of his characters, exploiting to the full the irony of their situation: the fact that their partners change but their gestures remain the same, that they are in turn deceivers and deceived, involuntarily echoing each other’s words and sentiments. The film is episodic, amounting in effect to ten variations on the same theme and great ingenuity is shown by the authors in varying the routine of encounter, seduction and desertion. To link the episodes Ophuls used the famous waltz written for the film by Oscar Straus, the recurring image of the roundabout, and the very important character played by Anton Walbrook, that of master of ceremonies or meneur de jeu. He is a sort of personification of the director himself, manipulating the characters and making them dance to the tune of the waltz. The freedom of the meneur de jeu contrasts with the captivity of the other characters. He can choose a new identity at will and range freely through time, while they are prisoners of their own personalities, unable to escape from the crowded present. The fact that the circle is never broken gives a sense of fatality to the coupling of the characters and the dialogue is littered with epigrams about the impossibility of love and happiness, but only in the eyes of the most fervent admirers of Ophuls does this lighthearted work contain a tragic demonstration of the futility of man’s quest for pleasure.
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