After a few years in Hollywood, Max Ophüls returned to Europe and directed "La Ronde". I saw it for the first time in early 2006 in a screening at the Portuguese Cinematheque. I didn't like it at all despite I loving (some) Ophüls. But as I watched it again last night, I was much more in tune with it, and think my previous judgement was too harsh. I really like it. Yet, I still don't love it.
Plot-wise, the film relates the encounters (mostly sexual) between five
women and five men, with one of them passing on to the next encounter
(thus creating the circle) under the supervising eye of Anton Walbrook,
who comments and guides the action, breaking the fourth wall and even
cutting the action at moments.Two non-sexual encounters, one at the
middle (where a married couple doesn't do together what they do with
others) and one at the end (where two of the men cross each other in the
street) elegantly provide the axis of symmetry and closure of the
The film, although beautifully symmetric in is construction, as you'd expect from a film called "La Ronde" (which could be translated as "The Circle"), is to me at least, too uneven in its balance. My issue with the film, and possibly the reason I disliked it so much before, is that the first half is so much better than the second. The first half up to the middle scene between the couple, is full of light touches and wit. In particular, the scene between the maid and the young man is a delight, with him playing the game so clumsily that it can't help endearing him to you. The following scene, with the young man again, and the married woman (played by the wonderful Danielle Darrieux) is almost as good and has one the wittiest moment of the film, which i won't spoil.
The second half by contrast, lacks this wit and light touch and feels rushed when it shouldn't (the episodes with the count played by Gérard Philipe and the second with the poet) and drags when it shouldn't (the first episode with the poet). One of the consequences of this, is that the performances seem weaker in the second part and the characters not properly developed (the count and the actress in particular) . There's also less interaction of Walbrook with the female characters than earlier on, which he had done so well with Simone Signoret and Simone Simon. I really feel something is missing in what should have been a perfect circle. I understand that there is a longer version of the film which may solve this, but as at the moment it seems to be hidden from view. It might be that this version will be the one that makes me love this film.
The film's cast is a veritable who's who of European actors, mostly French, of the time (the ones I mentioned plus Isa Miranda, and Jean-Louis Barrault, from "Les Enfants du Paradis"). But my favourite has to be Daniel Gélinas the young man, bringing a keen embarrassing to the role that you can't help but relate to. It got two Oscar nominations, for best art direction and best screenplay co-written by Ophüls himself.