The revival double-bill of Max Ophuls' "La Ronde" and Jacques Becker's "Casque d'Or" now at the Key should awaken a few rapturous memories among older moviegoers while beguiling younger ones with an affinity for durably stirring and glamorous romantic pictures.
It's pleasant to think of another filmgoing generation getting fixated on the lilting Oscar Strauss melody that became "the La Ronde theme" or on the sight of Simone Signoret in her majestic crown of blond hair, a vision of youthful Rubensesque beauty, in "Casque d'Or."
The Key recently enjoyed successful revivals of "Children of Paradise" and Ophuls' "The Earrings of Madame De . . ." While not quite in the same sublime class, "La Ronde" and "Casque d'Or" are two of the more notable French imports of the early '50s. They created a considerable vogue at American art-houses when fresh and never deserved to slip out of circulation. This revival, in crisp 35 mm prints, should confirm their most appealing and intoxicating jaulities.
"La Ronde," made in France in 1950, preceded "Madame De . . ." by three years. It was Ophuls' first post-war European production. A Jewish refugee from nazism, Ophuls had left Germany early in 1933 and directed films in Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland before arriving in the United States, where he spent eight years in Hollywood as a distinctive but never sufficiently utilized or fully assimilated filmmaker.
"La Ronde" represented a return to a favorite dramatic source, Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler, as well as a return to Europe. Ophuls had directed an adaptation of Schnitzler's "Liebelei" before going into exile. Although his romantic style is prefigured in that early work, it didn't flourish until Ophuls could draw on more abundant and flexible production resources in American and France. He needed the kind of camera mobility and scenic embellishment that make "La Ronde" such a seductive production. Without them his melancholy, bittersweet romantic themes seem touching but somehow stunted and unfulfilled. A sense of visual luxury enchance and crystalized the pathos in his material.
"La Ronde" is composed of 10 vignettes depicting sexual encounters or assignations that come full circle. The setting is Vienna at the turn of the century, and the cycle begins when a young streetwalker player by Signoret beckons to a soldier played by Serge Reggiani, destined to become Signoret's leading man in "Casque d'Or" a year later. The soldier picks up with a chambermaid played by Simone Simon who in turn picks up with a young gentleman played by Daniel Gelin, and the round continues until Gerald Philipe as a count completes the conception by spending a night with the streetwalker.
The episodes tend to be frail at the start and finish and strong down the middle. The concluding material evidently suffered from an excess of cutting. The missing scenes may be found in the screenplay, published in a Harper & Row anthology called "Masterworks of the French Cinema"
The two vignettes with Danielle Darrieux as a young society woman, reacting in turn to the rationalizations of an ardent young lover (Gelin) and a complacent husband (Fernand Gravey), are the most exquisite and satisfying passages in the film. In retrospect, Darrieux's performance seems like a brilliant audition for her Madame De. Her character's private feelings are revealed to the audience without being betrayed to the men in her life. It's a performance of phenomenal ironic subtlety.
In "Casque d'Or" Signoret and Reggiani were reunited as star-crossed lovers whose great, spontaneous passion was doomed by the tawdriness of the milieu they belonged to - the Parisian underworld circa 1898. Signoret, the mistress of a petty gangster, and Reggianai, a former criminal endeavoring to go, straight, fall in love at first sight when they meet at a suburban dance hall. Surviving a life-or-death showdown with Signoret's estranged lover, Reggiani is fatally compromised when the leader of the gang, Claude Dauphin, succeeds in a vicious scheme to acquire Signoret for his own pleasure.
Just as the protagonists fail to transcend their surroundings, Becker doesn't quite transcend the fatalistic melodramatic plot he condemns tham to. The movie has an admirable period feeling, inspired to some extent by the paintings of Renoir (Becker was Jean Renoir's assistant director for several years), and Signoret and Reggiani remain a touching, curiously vulnerable set of screen lovers. However, one can't help feeling that they're located a bit too low down to rise above it all, even symbolically. Ultimately, "Casque d'Or" is declasse in a way that inhibits great romance.