Notable mainly as the first of four films director Roger Vadim would make with future wife Jane Fonda, La Ronde ("The Round," 1964) is a fairly grueling remake of Max Ophuls' famous 1950 film of the same name - with, as they say in Sullivan's Travels, "a little sex." The gimmicky set-up has been imitated many times, but in Vadim's hands this satire of sexual pretensions is pretty pretentious itself. It's dripping with stylish editing and camerawork, classy sets and costumes, and has oh-so-sophisticated airs but is basically a dolled-up exploitation picture and superficial in the extreme.
Set in France just before the First World War, La Ronde's premise follows one character who carries on an affair with another, who has an affair with someone else, who's sleeping with that person, etc., until finally the chain comes full circle. The basic idea has been imitated many times, most recently in Dayereh (2000), an Iranian film that explores that country's often misogynistic treatment of women. Another fairly recent work, the pretty disastrous Chain of Desire (1992), added gay themes and AIDS to the mix. Vadim, being Vadim, parades various beautiful women before the camera in teasing but never explicit states of undress, in situations that in 1964 must've seemed like Hot Stuff.
Today, the antics of these annoyingly persistent, ass-grabbing Frenchmen and their irritatingly coy conquests are only silly when they're not stupefying and boring. There's surprisingly little variation among the various cads and philanderers, and the dialogue lacks insight while full of labored irony: "We live in an era decidedly without history," one character bemoans. "1914 will be a year in which nothing will happen." Ultimately, these bourgeois boobs and their mostly clumsy seductions come off as extremely grating.
Though Jean Anouilh's (Becket) script (from Arthur Schnitzler's play) understands the extreme lengths men (and sometimes women) will go - mostly meaningless flattery and endless deceit - to get into someone's pants, watching it unfold her isn't interesting at all because Vadim isn't particularly interested in the politics of the mating game. His energies are focused on cramming the film with style and titillating his audience, resulting in a work that's little more than a high-priced Burlesque show purporting to be an art house film. In 1964 La Ronde might have been highly arousing to men still breaking away from the sexually repressive fifties, but today the picture seems very mild, and could almost be shown on local television without cuts.
This was Jane Fonda's seventh film, and the first of a half-dozen she made in Europe concurrent with her rising stardom in America. Fonda's case is perhaps unique: she may be the only established name who went to Europe to a) star in movies produced in another language; b) appear in sexual situations far racier than was allowed in Hollywood at the time; and c) move freely between European and Hollywood films, both of which helped her career. Fonda is in La Ronde for a bit less than the middle-third of the picture, but it's clear that she holds most of Vadim's interest, and she's fine given the limitations of the part. (She's not dubbed and appears to speak French just fine.)
Others in the cast will be familiar to French film fans, including such faces as Anna Karina, star of Godard's Band of Outsiders (Band a part, 1964). Francoise Dorleac turns up as well, but in a non-speaking part at the very end.
Video & Audio
La Ronde is presented in its original Franscope theatrical aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and is 16:9 enhanced. Unfortunately, the transfer isn't very good. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps due to a lack of good elements, most of the original Eastman Color has faded with browns and reds dominating over almost non-existent blues. Blacks are appallingly lacking, with nighttime scenes washed out and grayish, during which a great deal of digital break-up is evident. (On this reviewer's player these dark scenes also exhibited a strange flicker.) There are a few splices and bits of negative dirt, but this problem is minor compared to the other issues. The French-only mono audio is okay but nothing special. The optional subtitles are fine, and the presentation retains about 45 seconds of exit music.
Supplements include And Vadim Created the Woman, a 1966 short possibly culled from French television, in black and white and running five minutes. It features pretty good interviews with both Fonda (again speaking in French) and Vadim. A why-bother Roger Vadim Selected Filmography is nothing more than a list of titles with no additional information, but a Gallery of Images isn't bad, with good reproductions of advertising material and a few production photographs.
The best thing about La Ronde is Maurice Binder's beautiful main title design, one quite unlike his work on the James Bond films. It cleverly references the film's basic set-up, and it alone makes this shallow and at times almost unbearable enterprise worth renting.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.