Le Plaisir (1952)

Max Ophüls | 1hr 37min

Between the three short stories adapted in Le Plaisir, a span of eight years separates their original publication in the 1880s. Being that these were products of an incredibly fertile period for French author Guy de Maupassant, he did not intend them as a thematic trilogy, yet Max Ophüls nonetheless identifies a common thread in each that he weaves through even more purposefully with laughter and sorrow. Such a delicate balance of tones is essential to his film’s overarching thesis – that pleasure may exist in the absence of true happiness. This, he posits, is a much rarer gift. Armed with a camera that moves with all the elegance of a gentle breeze, and a sophisticated charm that lightly alternates between comedy and tragedy, Ophüls lays out his parables of elderly men, young prostitutes, and jaded lovers seeking out their own forms of gratification in late 19th century France.

An omniscient narrator voiced by Jean Servais is our guide through these worlds, lifting passages straight from Maupassant’s stories to form the main basis of the script, while screenwriter Jacques Natanson works with Ophüls to compose the overarching framework. In each instance, the indulgences of our primary characters encounter some other humanistic ideal, starting with the “meeting of pleasure and love” in ‘La Masque.’

Ophüls is one of the greatest innovators of camera movement in history, and he lets it dance and twirl here with the mysterious Monsieur Ambroise in the decadent nightclub.

There, we are invited into the “rough, boisterous fun” of an elaborate club, within which men and women from across age and class boundaries dance to a lively orchestra. Ophüls isn’t one to deny his audience that excitement either. His mobile camera is entirely liberated here, eagerly tracking patrons who mull around the streets outside with lengthy dolly shots, and eventually dancing with them in the large, ornate hall. Perhaps there is even a bit of Josef von Sternberg in his cluttered production design of curved archways and flamboyant embellishments, though this aesthetic is far more luxurious than his Austrian counterpart’s imposing expressionism. On the occasion that he does deliver static shots, they often land at skewed angles, implicitly giving the impression that we are still moving with restless, garish scenery.

Canted angles and visual obstructions all through the club like a Josef von Sternberg film, crowding his shots with stunning production design.

The entrance of a mysterious, masked dandy who announces himself as the “great quadrille dancer, Monsieur Ambroise” draws eyes with his clumsy but enthusiastic dancing, and soon enough we become one with his movements, twirling and pivoting to the tune of upbeat strings. Only when he collapses in exhaustion and has his mask pulled off do we discover the face of an ageing man pining for the romance and energy of his youth. Meanwhile, his wife at home toils away to support his selfish habit. “I want him to live and carry on dancing,” she insists, revealing the love which upholds his pleasure.

The second tale our narrator imparts is ‘La Maison Tellier’, where a “meeting of pleasure and purity” unfolds at the First Communion of Madam Tellier’s niece, attended by all the prostitutes who work at her brothel. Ophüls’ inclination towards the perspectives of female characters would often see his films branded as ‘women’s pictures’, though this says more about the historical era he was working in than anything else. His depiction of these ladies offers them respect and complexity in equal measures, introducing them one by one by means of a crane shot that scales the walls of the building they work inside, and peers in through the windows. The curtains, blinds, and grilles which obstruct our view make for some particularly luscious frames here, keeping us at a distance from their work. Only when they exit the premises and embark on their lengthy train journey are those visual barriers removed.

Ophüls’ camera scales the side of this multi-story brothel and gazes through the windows, letting us meet each of the prostitutes while keeping the blinds, curtains, and grilles between them and the camera.

This community of amiable women makes for an amusing contrast to the male clients they leave back home, who start bickering over tax collector benefits the moment they are left alone. At the home of Tellier’s brother, Joseph, they lie awake in darkness, excited yet anxious for what awaits them the following day at church. At least there is come comfort to be found in Servais’ voiceover, poetically describing the “peaceful, penetrating silence that reached to the stars” on this quiet night.Though he often tells us exactly what we can see for ourselves, his narration acts as a companion to Ophüls’ stunning visuals, leading us from one deeply affecting composition to the next with lyrical grace. When we finally arrive at the Holy Communion, it leaves an even greater impact, hinting at a divine transcendence as we glide over the churchgoers and study the religious iconography surrounding them.

“Something superhuman seemed to hover above their heads, an all-pervading spirit, the powerful breath of an invisible, all-powerful being.”

Ophüls lands several remarkable compositions as the women lie awake in the darkness, creating a delicate dream space.

Eventually, the camera drifts back down to the faces of those lining the pews, each one moved by the deep sentiment of their visitors who are now brought to tears by the blessing of some mysterious, holy presence. Here, they are respected like any other woman, and even venerated as new members of Joseph’s family. Of the three tales presented in Le Plaisir, this is by far the longest, but it also acts as a subversion of the other two. While the first and final stories mirror each other in man’s attempt to draw happiness from their selfish indulgences, the women of ‘La Maison Tellier’ become physical emblems of pleasure, venturing forth from their home to find a pure, spiritual happiness.

Superb use of religious iconography at the church as the voiceover speaks of the divine, uniting pleasure and purity.

“Shall we now see pleasure confront death? Not a physical but a moral death,” our narrator rhetorically asks us, leading into the final tale of ‘Le Modèle’. For the first time too he reveals himself onscreen, taking part in the story as the friend of our main character – Jean the painter. Jean is infatuated with Joséphine from the moment he sees her, even before he discovers that she is a model. To him their romance is fated, and she quickly becomes his muse.

The story of their relationship’s breakdown is a simple one, as she becomes impatient with his introspective silences, and he grows frustrated with her constant talking. As always though, it is the pure stylistic panache of Ophüls filmmaking which fills this drama with such grand emotion, effortlessly shifting the camera between cinematic paintings that our main character could have created and instilling them with an incredibly rich depth of field. When the lovers’ mutual contempt reaches breaking point, Ophüls feverishly forces us into a wildly unhinged POV shot through Joséphine’s eyes, rushing up several flights of stairs and plummeting us out a window to meet the ground below.

Ophüls has an admirable dedication to an aesthetic – the skewed camera angles, eloquent camera movements, and visual obstructions are used all through Le Plaisir to great effect.

Her incidental survival ends their story on a strangely bittersweet note. Whether Jean’s decision to marry her is out of sympathy or a genuine change of heart, their future nonetheless looks stripped of the passion they once felt. As our narrator stands on the sidewalk with a friend and watches them pass by, he too ends his tale.

“He found love, glory, and fortune. Isn’t that happiness?

“Still, it’s very sad.”

“But my friend, there’s no joy in happiness.”

It is hard to imagine a filmmaker so suited to Maupassant’s eloquent literary prose as Ophüls, who finds a perfect formal match between these classical fables and his fluent, sweeping camerawork. True happiness for these characters can only be found in the absence of self-gratification, though it is so often the latter which they pursue to distract from their deep-rooted malaise. Only by separating oneself from such indulgent temptations can that special rarity be found in Le Plaisir – a state of true contentment, divorced from fleeting pleasures of a material world.

Le Plaisir is currently streaming in The Criterion Channel.


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