PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Le Plaisir

Max Ophuls with Daniele Darrieux

Ophuls' stories take Maupassant’s worldly wisdom and glamorous cynicism and imbue spirituality and compassion.

Le Plaisir

Director: Max Ophuls
Cast: Danielle Darrieux, Jean Gabin, Simone Simon
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1952
US DVD Release Date: 2008-09-16

“I’m delighted to speak to you in the dark, as if seated right beside you…and perhaps I am,” seductively drawls the narrator opening Max Ophuls’ Le plaisir. “You can imagine my anxiety, for these are old tales, and you’re so terribly modern.”

Ophuls’ unjustifiably neglected and aptly named 1952 masterpiece, based on three short stories by Guy de Maupassant, is all of those things: terribly modern, seductive, and dark. Criterion’s new release restores the film’s original order (“The Mask”, “Maison Tellier”, “The Model”)—and more so, its honor. Sinking into Le plaisir, the contemporary viewer is swept away by staged fantasies, lavishly artificial sets; and yet through all the mannered sophistication glimmers a consistent, astonishingly empathic, human sensibility.

More than just the rare literary adaptation that lives up to its source, Le plaisir skips lightly, valiantly ahead. At once filling in, questioning and subverting Maupassant’s narrations, Ophuls’ camera eye is both more intelligent and more kind. (The maestro conductor Daniel Barenboim spoke recently in New York of subversive instrumental lines in great musical scores: a wind instrument’s staccato pushes against a sustained string in a Mozart concerto. Ophuls attempts no lesser miracle.)

Competition between the two arts of literature and film—between the verbal and visual storyteller—is coded from the narrator/Maupassant’s opening words: “Various ways have been sought to present my stories to you. I thought the simplest way would be to tell you them myself…” This, of course, is what Ophuls never allows him to do. Le plaisir’s stories are neither simple nor ‘told’: they are an excuse for self-conscious cinema, exuberantly exploring its own possibilities and charmingly showing them off.

And yet (and this is why I think Le plaisir is a rare cinematic masterpiece) while Ophuls piles on the visual beauty, he subtly demonstrates that what he is adding is of far greater import than mere decoration. His stories take Maupassant’s worldly wisdom and glamorous cynicism and imbue spirituality and compassion. Beauty, in Ophuls, may come very close to saving the world.

From the opening of the brief first piece “The Mask”, we grasp that surfaces, here, hold great significance, but realize that layers of meaning must still be uncovered. Ophuls’ magic renders the unmasking pleasurable, even though the truth that the characters—and we—both notice and ignore, is gently wounding.

A grand ball celebrates and serves as pleasure’s hunting ground: men and women feverishly spend money and chase escape, each other, youth. One dancer, looking almost perfectly comme il faut but off in all his movements, collapses. He is literally a ‘caricature of a young man of fashion’: a doctor (pulled reluctantly away from the pursuit of his own pleasure) cuts apart stays and pulls away the young rubber face to unmask an old man. We follow the party home, where his complicit, broken down wife recounts her venerable Lothario’s unfailing pursuits. She is, we realize, as proud of his conquests as she is wrecked and ruined by their conjugal life. The doctor thanks her for a ‘great lesson’—and catches the next coach back to the dance.

Le plaisir is painstakingly symmetrical: short opening and concluding pieces bookend a lengthy middle story. “The Tellier House”, itself tripartite, opens with a voyeuristic gaze into the windows of a Normandy brothel. The town luminaries all gather in this charming and cheerful house, a kind of gilded birdcage viewed from the outside. (We might remember Lola Montes’ cage from the eponymous 1955 Ophuls film.) But the luminaries get a nasty surprise and social order begins to unravel when Mme Tellier’s closes unexpectedly on a Saturday. A sign trampled underfoot by fist-fighting sailors informs coyly, “Closed for a first communion.”

Tellier and her five girls abandon their urban set for rural passages. A series of journeys—by train, by cart, and then afterwards, by cart and by train—again frames the magical interlude of their visit to Tellier’s brother Rivet and his lovely daughter. For, their profession notwithstanding, the ladies are the undisputed guests of honor at this humble event. The triumph of the simple carpenter Rivet (played by the luminous Jean Gabin, whose presence in these gorgeous, unexpected bucolic scenes, is also an homage to Jean Renoir), the narrator declares, was complete.

Ophuls films are for lovers of great acting—and his actors, reputedly, adored the great director.

One of the girls, Mme Rosa (Danielle Darrieux), begins to stand apart. She catches the carpenter’s eye, but in this film about the pursuit of pleasure, the sole spark of genuine romance is never consummated. Instead, the young girl’s communion offers the only release of “The Tellier House” or Le plaisir in its entirety. Innocence personified moves through the church, and Mme Rosa, then the other girls, and then the entire congregation, begins to weep.

And then, back to Tellier house for the girls and a lonely flower-bedecked cart ride home for Jean Gabin, the sole sympathetic male role in Le plaisir. (My father, watching the film, murmured at this point, “It’s not easy being a carpenter, either.”) The town luminaries rejoice and we end amid champagne and dancing, an unexpectedly joyous night at the brothel after the rare, rare glimpse of a world beyond.

The concluding tale, “The Model”, is terse and unrelenting. The narrator warns that this story is about love and death: “a moral death—but take comfort, it ends in a marriage.” A talented and self-centered young painter takes on a model as his mistress (“childish yet sensual” Simone Simon). After “possession breeds contempt”, he attempts to get rid of her. He takes refuge with a writer friend—our narrator and Maupassant stand-in—who coldly explains matters to the heartbroken girl. In the only move open to her, the model throws herself out his apartment window—breaking both legs, confining herself to a wheelchair for life, but forcing her stricken former lover to marry her.

All three of Le plaisir’s stories, it turns out, are about motion, both its impossibility and inevitability. On the one hand, nothing can ever change: characters are trapped, in themselves, in circumstances, in relations to others. On the other hand, change—the passage of time, the approach of death, ruin—is inescapable.

It is Ophuls’ generally accepted motto, from the mouth of his greatest heroine Lola Montes, that “life is motion.” In Le plaisir, motion and stasis alternate as illusions masking one another. His camera is all swooping, panning, plummeting (with Simone Simon) motion.

This is characteristic of his French films: allegedly Hollywood’s even then conformist standards limited what he could get away with in the ‘40s. Ophuls escaped the Nazis to arrive in the US in 1941, but changed his mind and moved back to Europe in 1950. He made his four final and best films in a row: La ronde (1950); Le plaisir; The Earrings of Madame de… (1953); and Lola Montes before dying in 1957.

But for all his self-consciously cinematic rhetoric, Ophuls discloses a clear debt to the theater. Before turning to film in 1929, he had already made a name for himself with over 200 theater productions. The sets, and what he draws out of them, show it: the lavish dance-hall, the garret apartment, the brothel windows, the painter’s studio. And there is something theatrical about his use of music, swelling and drowning out with all the finality of curtain. His fearful symmetry itself is inherently musical (but whoever reversed the second and third stories to end Le plaisir more cheerfully in the first American release deserves a special circle in hell).

The Ophuls film that begs a direct comparison is La ronde. Both movies are about sexual desire; both dispense with traditional narrative structure for a musical arrangement. Both are faithful literary adaptations that nonetheless float (in the case of Le plaisir, soar) above the source material. La ronde, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play (Reigen in German), follows character to character in ten sexual encounters across class and age. The play inspired controversy and prompted decades of attacks on the author, most frankly anti-Semitic. Sigmund Freud famously once wrote to Schnitzler that “you have learned through intuition…everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.”

Schnitzler’s relentless depiction of fleeting sexual desire had, as a subtext clear to contemporary Viennese audiences, the spread of syphilis. The theme has reappeared in other reworkings of the play: the 1992 Chain of Desire by Temistocles Lopez (with Linda Fiorentino) explicitly maps the spread of HIV among interrelated strangers.

What distinguishes Ophuls’ La ronde is the sophistication and elegance with which he treats his subject. This ‘round’ is a merry-go-round, ruled by another dapper narrator. The theme of sexually transmitted disease is discreetly absent—yet one could argue that a trace remains, the more haunting for its erasure. The film is, perhaps, that much more profoundly about the traces, physical or spiritual, that the characters leave on one another.

Le plaisir is the more sophisticated film, yet it hides/reveals its subject with a similar sophisticated dexterity. Both movies are fascinated with power structures and the relation of power to desire: if La ronde primarily provokes by questioning class, Le plaisir’s theme is gender. Women are, inevitably, the object of pleasure: the girls literally for sale in the central story, merely underscore the disastrous power relations of the ‘happy marriages’ in the first and third. As the narrator quips tersely, “Sometimes happiness isn’t so joyful.”

Maupassant’s narrator misses the edge of this particular dynamic, but little evades Ophuls’ eagle eye. It swoops, it moves, and at times it stands stock still: to look at the dancer’s wrecked wife in their squalid apartment; at the girls and madam rattling around Tellier House; at the matron modeling her eternal wheelchair.

The extras include a restored digital transfer, English subtitles, and story order; introduction by Todd Haynes; assorted interviews; and an essay by Robin Wood.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.