Friday 16 September 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare reviews the new release of Max Ophuls LA RONDE

(Click to enlarge)
Gerard Philippe with a hangover after a night of not rising to the occasion, before he confronts his female companion for the last time in the last sequence of Max Ophuls' sublime La Ronde (France 1950). The screen is from a new UK Blu-ray from a previously unknown label to me called ScreenBound, and presumably licensed from the original rights holder Gaumont. I am certain the disc is legit and not a bootleg.
From the outset the new Blu-ray is a total must have but I have to qualify two things. First the transfer is from an older previously restored but quite good master, quite likely the same HD encode provided to Criterion for its DVD from nearly ten years ago. That master cleaned up virtually all emulsion problems as well as nicks, tears and the usual 35mm print damage to a great degree, but it didn't tame the constant frame jitter and gate weave. The new encode for the Blu-ray gives the master a generous bitrate and in the process some work seems to have gone into image stabliization which is these days a relatively cheap and simple to perform digitally in the course of remastering. This new encode certainly displays some but far less frame jitter than the Criterion, but in the long run La Ronde would benefit from a whole new visitation with new and far more comprehensive digital tools for a brand new 4K preservation master from Gaumont.
This new release on a small label, with no French BD in sight clearly suggests however that Gaumont has put a full resto of La Ronde on the backburner. This may be just as well considering the mess they made of the Madame de 2K which Criterion released as a BD a few years ago, which they eventually withdrew and remastered, still imperfectly for their own BD in 2011.
Second and most important This version of La Ronde runs 92m 10s to the second, with no opening copyright notices or credits, starting straight from the French title cards. This is of course the "official" release print. For the record the Criterion runs 92m 56s including logos and other notices prior to the opening titles.
But...... as a few of us now know....
Max originally made a final cut running approximately 111 minutes which is over 18 minutes longer than the release version existing since 1950. According to Max's son, Marcel Ophuls and other reports Max panicked after the first screenings to poor audience reactions at the premiere, and he recut the film down to its present length. The longer cut then seemed to disappear from view and only surfaced just over 25 years ago when it first turned up on French TV in the late 80s. Indeed it also appeared in the late 80s (presumably from the same French vault print to telecine) on one of David Stratton's SBS screenings with in-house SBS yellow subs. I had taped that broadcast back then and like many others remained unaware of its provenance and content until I was reminded of a longer cut a few years ago on an online forum. That print runs 105m; 26 seconds at PAL speed (4% speedup). .To cut a long story short, my own recording formed the basis for a number of amateur "re-issues" through the back channels which led to a currently best available "unofficial" version curated from an original recording from French DTV which retains the exact same length, and with custom subs. I could not begin to document the length and number of sequences which are extended or simply brand new. This is not "legally" available although the original French commercial VHS may be lurking around the old "K-7" traps in the Blvd St Michel and elsewhere.
Brad Stevens wrote a comprehensive note on the cut sequences for Sight & Sound  a few years ago. These include major extensions to Walbrook's narrator who now has more interaction with passers by and even major characters in the long cut. Even his bit with the censor scissors "interrupting" the last segment continues with Walbrook at the editing console for two minutes longer than earlier, and then segues to the final episode with several minutes of more material with Gerard Philippe and Isa Miranda before the disastrous assignation. In total there are 19 minutes no less of extra footage every second of which completely Ophulsian, and every second of them compelling and worthwhile.
Yet this long version is currently unknown outside a very limited number of cinephiles, and for the official record Marcel has taken it upon himself to describe the long version as "not legitimate" although he has not repeated the legal shenanigans he undertook to suppress it as he had with the German dub of Lola Montes.
So, we have a tantalizing conundrum. For now I recommend anyone who loves Ophuls and wants a quality release should buy the new Blu of the 92 minute cut. And in a ideal future Gaumont who still owns the copyright to both cuts, not Marcel, will see its way to some way of doing at least a full technical restoration of the 92 minute cut and at least a commensurate restoration of the 111 minute cut as far as possible from existing elements. In my view this is a comparable situation to having a full print of Welles' original cut of Ambersons but only releasing the RKO cut, and withholding the excised footage for no good reason other than the pleasure of one person. In the case of La Ronde we have the incredible fortune of both cuts existing.
And this, ladies and gentlemen is one reason why the p2p community and its followers is so important to continuing cinema history.

Editor's Note. This note first appeared on David Hare's Facebook page

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