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With: Pierre Brasseur, René Blancard, Henri Crémieux, Claude Dalphin, Danielle Darrieux, Arthur Devère, Paulette Dubost, Jean Gabin, Jean Galland, Daniel Gélin, Jocelyne Jany, Héléna Manson, Gaby Morlay, Madeleine Renaud, Ginette Leclerc, Mila Parély, Jean Servais, Simone Simon
Written by: Jacques Natanson, Max Ophüls, based on stories by Guy de Maupassant
Directed by: Max Ophüls
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 97
Date: 02/14/1952

Le Plaisir (1952)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Great Guy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Le Plaisir is a miracle. I had the opportunity to see it on the big screen during a 1999 Max Ophuls retrospective (along with The Reckless Moment and La Signora di Tutti) and it blew me away.

The first thing to do would be to place Le Plaisir in perspective with the rest of Ophuls' career -- an act that is key to understanding a work. Knowing what came before and what comes after truly enhances a film, especially in the case of Le Plaisir. Ophuls was born in Germany near the French border. He made a few early German films before fleeing to France. He then made a few films in The Netherlands and Italy, notably La Signora di Tutti (1934), before coming to Hollywood in 1940. In these early films, he began developing his sense of camera movement, of space, of continuous shots, and grand opulent sets.

In Hollywood Ophuls found himself a director for hire, and made three excellent films, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), and The Reckless Moment (1949). With Letter especially, Ophuls refined his style to the point of near-perfection.

But it was in 1950, when he moved back to France for the final leg of his career that he made miracles. La Ronde (1950) and Le Plaisir (1952) are technical perfection. They are the equal of Citizen Kane (1941) for cinematic inventiveness and artistic signature. As with Welles, who went on to the emotionally richer The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Ophuls moved on to even greater achievements with The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) and Lola Montes (1955), in which he kept his artistic stamp but made pictures that were even more emotionally involving and connected on a deeper level. But I'd like to talk about Le Plaisir, which I believe is a great starting place for viewers interested in Max Ophuls.

Le Plaisir is made up of three stories by Guy de Maupassant (who was also adapted by Jean Renoir for 1936's A Day in the Country, Val Lewton and Robert Wise for 1944's Mademoiselle Fifi, and Jean-Luc Godard for 1966's Masculin-Feminin). Likewise La Ronde was adapted from a play made up of several smaller vingettes. Perhaps it is the nature of these shorter stories that allowed Ophuls such creative experimentation without having to delve as deeply into character as in The Earrings of Madame de.... Which is not to say that Le Plaisir is not great in itself. Jean-Luc Godard once called it 'the greatest French film made since the liberation.' Indeed, on many polls of the greatest pictures ever made, Le Plaisir ranks higher than The Earrings of Madame de.... I think the reason for this is that it's a beginning. It's a basic key to understanding the rest of Ophuls. If someone is curious about Ophuls and only has time for one film, then it would be Le Plaisir -- the same way that Breathless is a good introduction to Godard.

The first story in Le Plaisir is "The Mask." It's a very brief story about a strange man who comes into a dance hall wearing a mask. He dances crazily for a short while, then collapses. A doctor (Claude Dauphin) takes the mask off, and is astonished to find that it is really an old man (Jean Galland). He takes the man home, and the man's wife (Gaby Morlay) tells his story; that the old man has been a womanizer all his life and can't live with the fact that he's now old. The woman admits how overjoyed she was when he got his first gray hair. The doctor leaves and goes back to the party, a little wiser.

The second story takes up the bulk of the movie -- about 70 minutes. It's "The Tellier House." Ophuls' camera tracks all up and down the outside of the house, introducing us to all its characters, without ever cutting or going inside. It's a whorehouse, and all the town's men go there for a good time. On a Saturday night, the house is suddenly closed, and a group of men, not knowing what to do, begin arguing with one another. Meanwhile, the ladies have gone to the country for a first communion. They take the simple country folk by storm, and then return back to the city, much to the joy of their grateful male clients.

The third story is very short, "The Model," with the great Simone Simon as an artists' model who becomes involved with an artist (Daniel Gélin). The artist is typically a womanizer and has left several models behind him. But Simon jumps out a window and cripples herself, which brings the artist to marry her after all. In the movie's final shot, he wheels her along the beach in her wheelchair, and two bystanders wonder why he does not seem happy in spite of his fame, wealth, and marriage.

The film is narrated by the voice of Guy de Maupassant, played in the French version by Jean Servais. There is another version, which is still in French, but has Peter Ustinov as Maupassant speaking English. This English version is the one most commonly seen in the US, but I was lucky enough to see the French version.

Like many of his other films, Ophuls' style seems to outweigh the subject matter at first. But the title, which translates to "pleasure," brings a poetic meaning to the three stories. They are all about pleasure, and the costs of pleasure. The happy story with the prostitutes is the main chunk of the film, but it is bookeneded by the two tragic stories, which begin and end the film. Perhaps Ophuls is talking about the escapist nature of film itself. When we arrive at the theater and leave afterwards, we are still in tragic real life. Ophuls is simply extending that to the beginning and the ending of the film. The middle story is about prostitutes, who provide pleasure, but for a price. We too, have paid money, but to see a film.

Andrew Sarris has pointed out that Ophuls' extended shots are representative of time itself. There is no cheating time by cutting back and forth. The continuously running camera captures time as it actually passes. The three stories are about time. "The Mask" is about the end of a life, "The Model" is about the beginning of the end of a life -- the couple is still young, but their lives are over. And "The Tellier House" is about having to wait one day, and how that can make pleasure seem more exciting -- whereas the bookend stories are about the immediate gratification of pleasure.

There is little question that de Maupassant did not intend for these three stories to go together (my volume of stories only contains "The Mask"). And it seems that just about any three of his stories could be connected in ways that made sense. Perhaps Ophuls just chose three stories that he liked or thought he could shoot interestingly. The ballroom and the pleasure house and the artists' studio provide for some astonishingly opulent backgrounds. Or perhaps it was Ophuls' unconscious instinct that grouped these three in such a successful way. I like to think that he was an exceptional artist and that it was all indended.

I hope those who have never seen an Ophuls film will see Le Plaisir and that it will affect them with the joy that I felt when I saw it.

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