Le Plaisir

“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.

RATING 10 / 10