by D. A. Miller
From Film Quarterly Spring 2009, Vol. 62, No. 3
The Whore fucks the Soldier, the Soldier fucks the Maid, the Maid fucks the Young Master, and so on until, to end the rigmarole, the Count fucks the Whore, and what seemed to be an interminable line warps into an all-encompassing circle: that is the memorable structure of Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (“Round Dance”). Everywhere you turn, the same unsavory little story: the triumph of the sex drive, whose blunt insistence destroys its idealization as love. Copulation organizes each episode; a double copulation organizes the series. Though men want one thing only, they never want it from the same woman, and vice versa; the dance obliges everyone to change partners. In this unsparingly disenchanted vision, copulation even lacks discernible purpose. The characters don’t seem to have sex so much as sex has them, using them parasitically as host-environments for its reproduction. Not that such reproduction is tied to procreation, or the “passing of the sperm,” as David Thomson believes; Reigen repeatedly confronts the facts of life, but hardly once mentions the making of babies that the facts of life are normally brought forward to explain. Stripped of its halos, alibis, and consequences, sex would constitute a cruel, if pleasurable, formalism whose sole principle is sex for sex’s sake. And with the closing of the circle, the final surprising, yet not unexpected, match of high and low, such urgent but empty and gratuitous sex seems a universal fate.
In all likelihood, the outrage caused by Reigen’s first performance owed less to the on-stage acknowledgment of sex than to the idea of sex that it demonstrated — namely, the idea of sex as an insult, an insult to all the social, psychological, and biological moralisms with which we normally domesticate it. But the turns of sexual history have visited a strange fate on Reigen. As the play’s shocking para-Freudian propositions about sex have succeeded in becoming idées reçues, its arena of permissiveness must now strike us as much less unruly, and far more circumscribed, than it once did. Tellingly, the play recognizes impotence, but not perversion; sex here has no other form but the textbook Fuck, the primal act whose commission confers on a Man and a Woman their profound and indeed only truth. Anything else is not even foreplay; it is just bad faith. So tightly wound is Reigen around the heterosexual couple’s doing what comes naturally that the narrative, far from scandalous now, looks like a manual of normativity, a canned celebration of “classic sex.” In the course of one too many sexual revolutions, Reigen has reeled over to the ancien régime.
It is the first merit, then, of Ophuls’s La Ronde to have understood this basic problem facing cinematic adaptation of Reigen. Even in 1950, when the film was being shot, Schnitzler’s material had ceased to be obscene; indeed, it was already in the dismal condition of what used to be sexy. Ophuls develops La Ronde‘s great poetry not around desire, therefore, but around the anhedonia of a world in which desire survives only as an antique sign of itself, a memorial tombstone laid over its grave. He supplements the even pairs of Schnitzler’s round dance with a singleton: a man of the world, mature and wise, so discreet and doleful and correctly dressed that, though he is ostensibly brought in to serve as a master of ceremonies, to “animate” the ronde, he might equally pass for an undertaker, come to lay it out properly. In whichever role, this meneur de jeu (Anton Walbrook), as critical tradition calls him, announces episodes, assigns partners, facilitates rendez-vous, and forestalls catastrophes; as an emblem of this labor, he is often shown running—and on one occasion repairing—a small, decoratively sluggish merry-go-round.
The addition of an uncompanioned auxiliary transforms the Schnitzlerian ethos completely. Reigens dance had seemed to proceed with perfect spontaneity, the natural expression of a sex drive that flowed as abundantly as a river in spate; La Ronde‘s merry-go-round has become a bit of a grind, requiring the MJ’s continual maintenance to keep its wheels greased and turning. It has also now become the object of his gaze, which, however fascinated by—and even necessary to—its operations, can never wholly disappear into them; he is typically shown observing the battle of the sexes with eyes askant and head slightly cocked. The emphasis on his off-angled vantage comes as early as the opening shot sequence, in which, after introducing himself, he suggestively passes a theater stage and a movie set to enter what he identifies as “Vienna, 1900,” and where, changing into a tailcoat, he proceeds to the merry-go-round and sets it going. This famously long take is linear, a not unimportant first fact in a film called La Ronde (always misremembered for the circular camera movements of which it in fact contains practically none); still more significantly, this line touches the carrousel only tangentially, insisting on the MJ’s spatial as well as temporal remove. The shot so often adduced as our serpentine induction into a waltz-like erotic whirl puts us strictly on the sidelines.
Viewed from there, the ronde becomes sad as an elegy and boring as a rerun. In turn-of-the-century Vienna, where Reigen was written as well as set, its scandalous sexual vignettes had an aggressive contemporary character, and their “degeneracy” qualified them even better as the last word in modernity. In La Ronde, this Vienna offers no more than a quaint sexual mythology, a rococo love hotel that features champagne suppers in cabinets particuliers and canopied beds with Stendhal’s De l’amour gracing the nightstands. “I adore the past,” says the MJ, “it’s so much more restful than the present and so much more certain than the future.” Certain and restful: desiderata for a good night’s sleep, no doubt, but hardly a practicable recipe for the other thing people do in bed. And if the opening long take does not perform the circular motion attributed to it, the film’s indisputable on-screen rotations—the carrousel, a Ferris wheel, a revolving door, a waltzing couple, and even a pair of bicycles—protest too much with their naughty insinuation of “screwing”; they more successfully convey the reassuring calm of nicely regulated clockwork. In less time than it takes for Oscar Straus’s theme waltz to become an ineradicable earworm— that is to say: on the very instant of their first presentation—the episodes and characters have “turned” in a quite different sense: they have curdled into stereotypes. Not even the “illicit” character of most of the episodes can kick them up; this is nothing but the sanctioned illicit of the nineteenth-century bourgeois order, already fully codified in its literature, where the only thing more “correct” than a young master initiating himself with the chambermaid is that, in later life, when he has become a père de famille, he keep a young mistress on the side.
Small wonder that we chuckle complacently when the camera cuts from a nascent sex scene between the Actress (Isa Miranda) and the Count (Gérard Philipe) to a shot of the MJ, with celluloid and scissors, supposedly editing out of the film the couple’s further progress. Not at all aroused by the sex scene in the first place, we don’t feel in the least cheated when it is truncated. The act of censorship only tells us, of palpable eroticism, how little there would ever be to censor in La Ronde. But though this sequence does not sexually excite or frustrate us, it does do something for which our biddable laughter offers thanks: it flatters our sexual sophistication.
Such would appear to be the second labor of the MJ: to be knowing and to spread his knowingness around: not so much to the characters whom he advises and consoles, but who remain rather dense about it all, as to the spectators whom he invites to imitate him and the critics who— see Terence Rafferty’s super-suave essay in the Criterion booklet—are generally happy to parade their own similarly melancholy savoir vivre. The MJ introduces himself to us thus: “I am the incarnation of your desire … your desire to know everything.” His self-correction, moving us from our desire to a desire to know everything about it, identifies a sour project that we hear very little about in criticism of La Ronde: to replace erotic experience with that “experienced” attitude toward it that is in fact its depressive antithesis. Yet with erotic experience overfamiliarized from the start, how could we ever not be knowing about it? The MJ’s knowingness is too easy not to be facile, less the fruit of experience than its evasion; it refuses to recognize the underlying sexual numbness—his, theirs, ours—that it rationalizes and extends. As a result, his sophisticated répliques seem hardly distinguishable from the hackneyed desire he purports to know all too well.
Yet despite his claim that La Ronde is “everyone’s story,” it’s manifestly not his. To the Prostitute (Simone Signoret) coming on to him, he says, “There must be some mistake, Madame. I’m not part of the game. I run the ronde.” From this ostensibly universal structure, its own managing director has been excluded. The contradiction is never seen as one; but how does something so obvious, so flatly stated, get to pass for invisible? Partly because Author (or Director) and Character are felt to occupy distinct worlds, with different laws applying—and partly owing to the reinforcing distinction between Desire, felt by the blinkered characters who ride the ronde, and Knowledge, distilled in the celibate MJ who runs it. But the wit of Ophuls’s conceit depends on the constant breaching of levels between the story and its framing; the MJ is pictured now as part of the story being filmed (a coachman, a waiter, a neighbor), now as part of its filming, with scissors or clapboard in hand. And however flat the ronde’s erotics, they elicit from him a performance so overflowing with animation, anxiety, invention, and ruse, that no word but desire can describe the oddity of its excess. Indeed, this is the only desire in the film that is cut fresh off the bone. It is accounted for neither in terms of the desire circulating on the carrousel, which the MJ doesn’t share, nor by the knowledge circulating about the carrousel, which comprehends everyone’s desire but his own. In the glib machinery of La Ronde, the MJ is the loose screw.
But you would never know this from the scholarly commentaries produced for the Criterion edition, which allow the MJ no space as a desiring being, with a sexual center or even an erotic surface. Susan White observes that a man and a woman who have made love are “reduced to the essentials of their species,” while in a similar spirit, Alan Williams, the other authorized talker, remarks that the symmetries of Ophuls’s style are “structured on gender roles” (as if these were symmetrical!). And by commissioning this pairing of Williams and White, by conjoining them like one more “symmetrical” and essentialized couple on the carrousel, Criterion would assure us that the treatment of sexuality in the film is balanced and, so to speak, well-rounded.
Amid such unseeing hetero-narcissism, one must be grateful for the openly homophobic joke that Daniel Gélin tells about Walbrook in a 1989 interview reissued among the supplements:
This anecdote is illustrated with clips from Walbrook’s performance: moments that we are thus invited to read as exemplifying those blatant homosexual lapses, those obvious but self-oblivious revelations that reduced poor Max to coughing and now ask us to share Gélin’s laughter. “Who am I? People never know more than a piece of reality; why? Because they see only one side of things”; these words, though scripted by Ophuls, now seem to lay bare the actor’s sexual orientation, as if literally exposing his behind. And when, to show that he sees things “from all sides, in the round,” Walbrook waves a circle in the air with his overlimber wrist, throwing an appraising glance at his fingernails, we seem to have caught him in the act of making the classic homosexual slip.
A nasty, irresponsible, and untrustworthy air hangs over this interview segment. But over the better-behaved commentary, with its sins of omission only, it has the advantage of showing that the MJ’s exclusion from the sexuality of the ronde is not the same thing as exclusion from sexuality. For who is not immediately convinced by Walbrook’s swish hand — or by a whole archipelago of such moments that, on this hint, we may readily discover extending all through his performance — of the existence of a different MJ from the one we have been narrowly allowed to know? This new MJ is not the regretful Spirit of Sex Past haunting the antique carrousel; nor is he the arch sophisticate who, like you, knows everything about sex and feels nothing; he is instead an incorrigible queen, whose superrefinement—however cleverly it embellishes the heterosexual circuit—betrays the bad form of his sexual eccentricity.
That Walbrook should appear to “forget his manhood” is, whatever else, the inevitable effect of his structural position in La Ronde; and had Gélin assumed the role, he too would have leaked suspicious signs of one sort or another. In Reigen, of course, there could be no perversion; nothing else existed but the Fucking Heterosexual Couple. But in La Ronde, this dyad requires for its unity an excluded third, who, unmatched with any partner, must seem (once we see him as at all sexual) to represent perversion in its purest form. Yet let’s not mince our mincer: while others might play hetero-sexuality’s excluded third (the spinster, the celibate, the “dirty” old man, the pedophile, even the child), for whom but the homosexual is this the role of a lifetime?
Look again at the celebrated shot in which the carrousel spins in one direction while a couple waltzing in the foreground (Danielle Darrieux as the Young Wife and Gélin as the Young Master) turns in the other; the camera slowly moves sideways, once again in tangent to the ronde, and then approaches Walbrook, shown from a low angle looking on. Superficially, the contrast is between the couple’s fluent movement and his upright rigidity; but if you look more closely, you will see that the waltzers are not really moving at all; they are being rotated mechanically on a platform, and even their conversation is obviously faked “business.” By contrast, Walbrook’s apparent inertness proves to be the restraint of a magnificent economy of action. He has been holding up a cane, which he lets drop with perfect timing just as he also drops the dampening news that the lovely Young Wife is about to sleep with … her Husband (Fernand Gravey). And in the grain of his cryptic expression, variously eager, tired, absorbed, indifferent, aloof, resigned, you may read a whole unwritten volume of twentieth-century sexual history. This is the bright-eyed/indrawn face of one who must enliven the ronde with his wit and taste, but remain on its perimeter, excluded from participation; the fascinated/bored look of one who must always be just looking, whose erotic options are restricted by the ronde to self-monitoring narcissism or servile voyeurism; the commanding/cowed attitude of one who takes vengence on the ronde with his irony, half spiteful, half serene, and refuge from it in his impeccable, or embarrassing, but in any case unassimilable style. It will always seem reductive to see the MJ, through Walbrook’s performance, as “gay.” But how much more reductive not to see it, to see only the ronde instead of La Ronde.
D. A. MILLER is John F. Hotchkis Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.