Le plaisir

Director: Max Ophuls
Screenplay: Jacques Natanson and Max Ophuls (dialogue by Jacques Natanson; based on three stories by Guy de Maupassant)
Stars: Claude Dauphin (The doctor), Gaby Morlay (Denise), Madeleine Renaud (Julia Tellier), Ginette Leclerc (Madame Flora), Mila Parely (Madame Raphaële), Danielle Darrieux (Madame Rosa), Pierre Brasseur (Julien Ledentu), Jean Gabin (Joseph Rivet), Jean Servais (Voice of Guy de Maupassant), Daniel Gélin (Jean), Simone Simon (Joséphine), Paul Azaïs (Man at the ball)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1952
Country: France
Le Plaisir
Le PlaisirNear the beginning of Max Ophuls’s Le plaisir, a gently swirling adaptation of three stories by Guy de Maupassant, the narrator (voiced by Jean Servais in the guise of the author) informs us that these are “old stories for your modern times,” which has a doubled distancing effect. The stories are self-consciously set in the late 19th century, with all the attendant customs, rituals, and social graces, which Ophuls and his cowriter Jacques Natanson clearly wanted to reflect and comment on the modern era in which they were living. However, watching the film now more than 50 years later, the “old stories” are now twice removed and we can see in them not only social reflections of a bygone era, but also cinematic reflections of the French “Cinema of Quality,” which Ophuls embodied so thoroughly and that was soon destined to fall beneath the rebellious trampling of the French New Wave.

Le plaisir (which means “the House of Pleasure”) is the kind of film your savor, so full of life, creativity, and sly ironic commentary. Ophuls was a world-renowned visual stylist whose fluid use of the long take was matched only by Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, two film artists who also knew how to grab your attention with visual technique, but without letting the aesthetic appreciation impinge on the story. Ophuls is most frequently discussed in terms of his cinematic style, but he was also a gifted storyteller, one who knew how to mix visual acumen and narrative reason. Sometimes this results in his films coming off like mere trifles, but only because his lightness of touch keeps them from becoming heavy-handed or overbearing, even as he toys with melodrama, broad social comedy, and caricature. His films are also notable for the way they revel in the wonderful messiness of life, which is why he could take literary texts by cynical writers like Guy de Maupassant and energize them with humanity (he did the same thing with Arthur Schnitzler’s source play in 1950’s La ronde).

The three stories in Le plaisir are loosely related in terms of their focus on surfaces and how they hide what’s beneath. This theme finds its most obvious embodiment in the film’s opening act, which also proves to be its shortest, in which a dandy in a top hat and monocle (Paul Azaïs) takes center stage at a ball, only to collapse at the height of his energetic dancing. When a doctor (Claude Dauphin) is brought to his house, he discovers that it is, in fact, an elderly man who puts on a youthful mask when he goes out at night, a habit that his long-suffering wife (Gaby Morlay) endures only because she loves him so deeply.

The second story concerns the madame (Madeleine Renaud) of an exceeding popular bordello who closes up shop for the weekend and takes her entire stable of girls to the countryside where they attend her niece’s first communion. This is the longest of the three segments and by far the most lighthearted, as Ophuls dances around the irony of the big-city prostitutes drawing attention in the quaint country village, not because of their sinful enterprise, but because of their cosmopolitan sophistication and fancy clothes. The girl’s father, Joseph Rivet (Jean Gabin), proudly marches through town with the ladies in tow, a spectacle that is oddly sweet when it could have been little more than silly. It is in this segment that Ophuls seems most at home, soaking in the sun-dappled French countryside and relishing the contrast of city and county, confinement and openness.

The third story concerns a young artist (Daniel Gélin) who pursues a beautiful model (Simone Simon) and eventually marries her, a decision he later regrets when he finds that he misses the freedom of bachelorhood. This is easily the darkest of the three stories, as it focuses intently on unrequited love, broken ideals, and the extent to which we will go to pursue that elusive thing called “happiness,” which the narrator famously informs us at the end of the film is not always “joyous.” The sting of that statement--that happiness and joy are not always the same thing--is an interesting place for Ophuls to end the film, suggesting that he wanted to go out on a more serious note that we might use to reflect back on the lighter moments of the early stories (this story also features the film’s most stunning shot, which seamlessly sutures us into a character’s perspective as she races up a flight of stairs and throws herself from a balcony).

Like his previous film La ronde (1950), Le plaisir is intent on weaving together characters from all walks of life and showing how, despite their vast differences in social status, income, and respectability, all have in common the fundamental essence of life, which compels them to pursue their desires, sometimes to less-than-joyful ends. For all the laughs Ophuls supplies, there is an underlying sadness that you can’t quite shake.

Le Plaisir Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Introduction by filmmaker Todd Haynes
  • English- and German-language versions of the opening narration
  • “From Script to Screen,” a video essay featuring film scholar Jean-Pierre Berthomé discussing the evolution of Max Ophuls’s screenplay for Le plaisir
  • Video interview with actor Daniel Gélin
  • Video interview with assistant director Tony Aboyantz
  • Video interview with set decorator Robert Christidès
  • New essay by film critic Robin Wood
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 16, 2008

    The new high-definition transfer of Le plaisir was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored. The image is certainly clean, but it looks just a tad dark and lacks fine detail, especially in the numerous long shots. Overall, though, there isn’t much to complain about, especially given the fact that the film is more than 55 years old and has never been available on DVD in Region 1, although it is yet another instance of Criterion’s insistence on windowboxing. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical print track and digitally restored, sounds fine for its age.
    The supplements open with an eloquent 18-minute introduction by filmmaker Todd Haynes (I’m Not There), which is really more of an interview in which he discusses each story in the film (hence the warning beforehand that it contains spoilers) and offers shot-by-shot commentary on what he finds particularly striking. Criterion has included the English- and German-language versions of the opening narration, which feature Peter Ustinov and Anton Walbrook, respectively.“From Script to Screen” is an informative video essay featuring film scholar Jean-Pierre Berthomé discussing the adaption of each of the original stories and the screenplay’s evolution (be prepared to play close attention because his accent is pretty thick). Finally, there are video interviews with actor Daniel Gélin (12 min.), assistant director Tony Aboyantz (13 min.), and set decorator Robert Christidès (15 min.), all of which were recorded in Paris in 1989.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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