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The Criterion Collection presents
"We're taking a little stroll through time."
DVD ReviewDon't be fooled by the Viennese fin de sicle frippery, or the midcentury Parisian filmmaking fluidity—this is a movie, frankly and resolutely, about getting laid. It's also wonderfully charming if, given its structure, a bit meandering—from a historical perspective and an American one, it's remarkable to see what director Max Ophuls was permitted to do at the same time that Hollywood filmmakers were forced to keep anything explicit completely under wraps, courtesy of the Hays Code.
Ophuls' film is based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler, an Austrian writer who may be more familiar to contemporary audiences as the author of the novel on which Eyes Wide Shut is loosely based. The film is something of a sexual relay race, showing us a seduction, then one partner going off with another, and then that third person with yet another, and so on. Oscar Strauss provides the lovely music, which situates the story right in its period—it's set in Vienna, in 1900 or so, and everybody in it is perfectly turned out. But there's no doubt about the adult content of what they're up to—we see a hooker negotiating with a soldier over price, for instance, before an assignation, standing up, against a wall down by the river. And the film is crammed with every iconic image of French sexuality that you can think of, including, of course, the dainty little chambermaid ready to throw off her little costume for some alone time with the master of the house.
There's even a bit alluding to the performance problems of an overeager young cad and a cougar of a married woman, and at times it's all like a grand, midcentury French Cialis ad. But it doesn't play out as a bedroom farce, or even as remotely smutty—Ophuls seems very much at ease with his characters' desires, and isn't interested in judging them, or punishing them for their alleged sins. The conceit holding the piece together is that we're led through these anecdotes by a raconteur, played by Anton Walbrook, perhaps most famous for The Red Shoes—he's like a flâneur out of Baudelaire, occasionally dropping into the story himself in crucial little cameos, along the lines of the Stage Manager in Our Town. He also breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the camera, and to us—it's like an odd little Brechtian device used to hold together this string of intimate little anecdotes.
It's also the kind of thing that's more at home in the theater than on screen—if you've seen anything from The Fantasticks to Pippin, you'll know what I'm talking about, and here it can occasionally seem forced, and overly arch. (It's like Ophuls, for all his skill, hasn't quite figured out how to mesh the two styles, and Walbrook lacks the ironic self-awareness of, say, Ferris Bueller.) But the fluid camerawork, the confidence in his performers, and the control over the tone of the potentially dangerous material makes this generally a model exercise in directorial authority.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The extensive restoration of the feature makes for a handsome DVD, but there are some awful image problems in the last half hour of the film—a series of vertical squiggly lines dance about the right side of the frame for great periods, and it's intensely distracting. One would imagine that this is the fault of compromised source material, but still, it's a disappointment.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track has the occasional pop and crackle, but overall it's pretty clean.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Susan White
Packaging: custom cardboard cover with sl
Circles of Desire: Alan Williams on La ronde (35m:32s) presents another Ophuls expert, discussing the director's relationship with Schnitzler, his working methods, and the place of this film in his body of work—certainly worth watching, as is a brief 2008 interview (6m:48s) with the director's son, Marcel. Cast member Daniel Gélin reminisces about the production in a 1989 interview (12m:38s), emphasizing the director's celebratory French homecoming.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is the reproduction of correspondence between the author's son, Heinrich Schnitzler, and Laurence Olivier, who in 1964 wanted to produce the play at the National Theatre—Olivier even suggests that Edward Albee be commissioned to provide a new translation. Schnitzler politely declines, as per his late father's wishes; only a codicil to the writer's will, ceding the French rights to the piece to his translator, made Ophuls' film possible. Finally, the accompanying booklet features an illuminating essay by Terrence Rafferty.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsCharming and sexually knowing without ever seeming prurient, Ophuls' return to French filmmaking is a lovely little bon bon of a motion picture.
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