Five minutes: That’s how long it takes Anton Walbrook’s omniscient narrator to step out of the fog, pace in front of a theatrical proscenium (and past a film camera), grab his top hat and walk over to a moving carousel—all in a single, glorious, gliding shot. Max Ophüls’s ode to carnal knowledge wastes no time in drawing viewers in to its daisy chain of lustful liaisons; after that intoxicating opening, you happily go along for the ride. A qui’s-qui of French stars—Simone Signoret, Danielle Darrieux, Simone Simon, Gérard Philipe—trade romantic partners like a relay team, while the director’s moving camera deftly guides you through an elaborate game of musical chairs with the precision of a Viennese waltz. Some would argue that Ophüls’ other films are better testimonies to his strengths as a storyteller, but La Ronde’s tour of a social jungle—populated solely by beasts with two backs—is the perfect example of how to turn a dirty joke into high art. No one, not even Lubitsch, could make smuttiness seem so elegant and refined.
The disc’s supplements, which include a truly enlightening lecture by film historian Alan Williams, offer a nice balance between the personal and the scholarly. The correspondence between Laurence Olivier and the son of dramatist Arthur Schnitzler regarding La Rondewill be mostly of interest to fans of the source material (Schnitzler’s play Reigen), but this is Ophüls’s show; all roads eventually circle back around to him.