Sunday, September 27, 2009

LA RONDE (1950)

This is a frothy, charming, spicy little confection about love and sex with virtually no overarching narrative and, as far as I can tell, no real lesson or moral to impart, aside from the observation that love is a game of deception, pleasure and pain. The film, set in Vienna, begins with our narrator (Anton Walbrook, at right) strolling out of the fog and through the streets, telling us he is the personification of our desire to know everything; he sees life "in the round." As he walks he sings a song about everyone taking their turn on love’s carousel, and winds up at an actual carousel where he begins to narrate the short story cycle that makes up the rest of the film.

A young prostitute picks up Franz, a soldier and gives him a free ride, so to speak, down by the river. The next night, Franz makes out with Marie, a housemaid, on a park bench and almost loses his sword (swords are everywhere here in turn-of-the-century Vienna and, yes, they are metaphors). Marie has a tryst with Alfred, a son of the family she works for, and Alfred is soon renting an apartment so he can meet Emma, a married woman. We see Emma and her husband Charles have a bedroom discussion about extramarital affairs, and soon Charles takes his mistress Anna to a fancy restaurant where they have a private room for dinner and sex—in that order. He sets her up in an apartment (I think the same one where Alfred has his rendezvous) which she uses to meet with Robert, a writer, who is seeing an actress starring in one of his plays, who is sleeping with a count (who is scandalized at her suggestion that they have sex in the morning, though not scandalized enough not to go through with it), who goes out and gets drunk and spends the night with, surprise, the prostitute from the first episode.

The film espouses a fairly cynical view of love, and given the emphasis on extramarital affairs, I was expecting some unhappiness or even tragedy eventually, but aside from some hurt feelings, things remain light throughout. Based on a play, the movie highlights its artifice constantly, usually through the character of Walbrook: in his first stroll (shot in one long take), we see him walk past studio lights on the street set; later, he uses a clapboard as a transition between stories; when a character has a spell of impotency, he brings the carousel to a grinding halt; as a particularly randy pair of lovers begin to go at it, Walbrook actually censors the film, cutting and splicing in front of us. Despite the artifice (or maybe because of it), the film is a feast for the eyes and is shot beautifully, with lots of long takes filled with fluid movement through elaborately appointed sets. For some reason, the actors in the first half make the strongest impression, including a young Simone Signoret as the prostitute, Daniel Gelin (pictured) as Alfred, Simon Simon (of CAT PEOPLE) as the maid, and Danielle Darrieux as Emma. The song that Walbrook sings is quite lovely and memorable. A treat all around, and available from Criterion in a gorgeous restored print. [TCM]

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