La ronde - dir. Max Ophüls - 1950 - France
Yikes. All excitement I had for Criterion's recent release of Max Ophüls' La ronde came to a screeching hault within the first five minutes. Having seen Roger Vadim's 1964 remake prior, I hadn't expected the Barbarella director to almost mirror Ophüls' film, or perhaps more accurately Arthur Schnitzler's play. So when things played out nearly identically, I think I'd done myself a disservice by seeing Jane Fonda/Anna Karina version before this one. But that wouldn't be as self-punishing as if I hadn't realized what Vadim did right that Ophüls' didn't. Yikes indeed.
La ronde, thus, becomes hindered by the presence of Anton Walbrook as the "Raconteur," the guide through the film's circular structure, grimacing slyly through the sequences and addressing the audience in delicate mannerisms and the occasional lousy song. I found my skin crawling up my arms every time he winked-and-nudged onscreen, conjuring up more of the theatrical apparatus than the cinematic realm. For what purpose does he serve the film? His entire character is thankfully wiped clear of Vadim's version, allowing for the action to flow in more of a sweeping action, keeping the action swift... and if Vadim succeeded over Ophüls in any way, it would have to be here. And "here" is crucial.
I feel a tad reluctant to admit that the fascinating structural examination of bedfellows worked better in Dean Howell's liberty-taking Nine Lives, from 2004. It uses the same approach, following one character through their "romantic" coupling and then following that person's partner as they move to the next person. Nine Lives uses the format in most devestating manners, achieving everything that it should from the lay-out, crafting a haunting, mysterious glimpse into these nine lives. Of course, I'll take Richard Linklater's brilliant Slacker over all three, but it's strange that a little-seen queer film from four years ago proved a better exploration than the works of two respected French auteurs. Yikes.