Review: Le Plaisir (1952), dir. Max Ophuls
Max Ophuls was one of the most graceful storytellers of the now more than 100 year-old history of narrative cinema. His famous gliding camera was more than an arty technique; it complimented the constantly changing whirlwind of loves and losses upon which he so often focused.
Le Plaisir is a triptych of tales (three of Ophuls favorite de Maupassant short stories) set in the late 19th century, each one touching on the effects of pleasure on the lives of the characters. Movies are already a thoroughly voyeuristic event, and the narrator’s voice (which is supposed to be de Maupassant himself) sets a tone that makes us even more conscious of peering in at the lives he chooses to share with us. Throughout all three parts, Ophuls camera, always moving, is ever placed behind objects and looking through windows. We are hardly ever up close and involved with the characters. Paradoxically, this creates quite an intimate feeling. It is always more tantalizing to see a mostly nude body – a completely naked body has a different allure, but it has lost its mystery. And so Ophuls lets us see only parts of the activities that occur inside rooms, behind bushes and on the other side of fences.
The first tale, “The Mask”, is also the shortest, and my least favorite. An old man takes great pleasure in putting on a mask and attending late-night balls with the young people. As his wife tells us, he regrets the loss of his own youth, and hides his aging face with the mask. The opening ballroom sequence is pumped with energy, the camera dancing along with the revelers. The old man’s entrance is frenetic and fascinating. Quickly, however, the old man cannot keep up and he collapses on the floor. A doctor is called and he is taken home to his wife, who is awaiting him, unsurprised (he has done this many times before). At this point the film lags for the first and only time. The doctor who brings the old man home stays and listens to the wife’s tale. While the story she tells is appropriate to the themes of the film, the camera stops moving and the movie becomes very verbal and less visually dominant. I think in a different context, this short would seem quite brilliant. As an opening act to the final two stories, it is only very good.
The second tale, “The Women of the House”, is the best and liveliest of the three. Centering on the most popular whore house in a small town, we first follow the men who value “The House” so much. These episodes are mostly comedic, in how much the men depend on the house as their only escape from their regular lives and in the amusing ways in which they sneak off for visits. The “drama” ensues when the men discover that the House is closed. Nobody can figure out why, or where the women have gone. This leads to the closing of the sequence, an excellent scene in which seven or eight men sit dejectedly in a semi-circle, backs to the camera. Within minutes they are at each other’s throats, arguing over small things, taking their frustrations out on each other.
Ophuls then takes us to the women, who have gone on a day-trip to visit the Madame’s family. Her niece is being confirmed into the church. After an amusing incident on a train with a traveling salesman, Ophuls begins to draw a clearer picture. Riding on a wagon from the train, the women pass the church, and they watch as the nuns move about their business. We are starkly reminded of the women’s profession. This sets the stage for the rest of the story, in which Ophuls, without making a statement about prostitution, instead creates a very sympathetic portrait of the women, in spite of and because of their profession.
There are only two times in which the women lose their gaiety and become thoughtful; the first night sleeping in the quiet country house and then later in the church itself during the ceremony. Both times we feel that the forced silence is not so much an opportunity to regret their decisions as much as time away from what gives them life. The energy of talking, carousing, flirting and dancing makes them happy. The silence frightens them because they do not know what to do with it. What they do understand is that they have been deprived of something, however elusive, and the silence makes them aware of it.
The “women of the house” never even seem to mind the lewd attempts by the salesmen and the Madame’s brother. It is always the Madame herself who gets upset and chases the men away. The women are innocent – obviously not sexually, but innocent because they need to be guided. Ophuls often filmed this dynamic of the irresponsible man and the strong but naive woman. In the end, however, the women return home and the men of the town are happy again.
The third part, “The Model” is much more grim. It also tells of an abused woman, though it is not clear exactly who can be faulted for the broken marriage. A painter and his model fall in love and become successful together. But as time goes by, they drive each other crazy and the man finally leaves her. The most interesting scenes are at the very end, in which the wife threatens to kill herself if he does not return to her. There is a sensational series of shots in which we get the point of view of the model, running towards the upstairs window, crashing through it – a horrified “Nooo!” coming from the husband -and a crash into the glassed roof of a building below. It is a brilliant and jolting choice by Ophuls. The entire movie up until that point is smooth and flowing, nearly always watching from a slight distance. Suddenly we are slammed into the bumpy first-person camera, and we can feel the jump in our stomach as she falls towards the ground.