Le Plaisir Review
The first part of what follows is a revised, expanded and updated version of the review of Second Sight's DVD I wrote for this site in 2006, here.
Dedicated to the memory of Danielle Darrieux (1917-2017)
Le Plaisir is based on three stories by Guy de Maupassant, two short ones, of just over a quarter-hour each, bookending an hour-long central section. We begin in darkness, with de Maupassant (voiced by Jean Servais) speaking from his time in the nineteenth century to a modern audience, as he tells his three tales, each on the theme of pleasure and its price. In “Le Masque”, pleasure meets love. We are in turn-of-the-century Paris. A young man attracts attention as he dances but there’s something fixed and unnatural about his expression: he's wearing a mask. When he collapses the truth is revealed: he's an old man, trying to regain his youth. The longest story, “La Maison Tellier”, shows pleasure meeting purity. It concerns a group of prostitutes visiting the countryside to attend the first communion of their madam’s niece and one of their number, Rosa (Danielle Darrieux) has a romantic encounter. The final story, “Le Modèle”, depicts the destructive relationship of an artist (Daniel Gélin) and his model (Simone Simon), and its ironic coda. This ends the film on a melancholic note, as pleasure meets death.
In 1950, Max Ophüls returned to France from Hollywood, where he began which would be the last four films of his career. (For an overview of Ophüls's life and career, see my review of the BFI's release of his penultimate film, Madame de...) The first of the four, La Ronde remains the definitive film of Arthur Schnitzler’s play, in which a series of sexual encounters (prostitute meets soldier meets chambermaid…and so on up the social scale until we reach a nobleman who meets the prostitute at the beginning) conveys a cynical attitude towards its subject matter: any declaration of love is tempered by the fact that we either have seen or will see every participant in the arms of someone else. The play must surely have attracted Ophüls for its circular structure and he also introduced one of his trademark ringmaster/master of ceremonies figures, played by Anton Walbrook. The film won critical acclaim, including the British Film Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. However, more for its attitude towards sex than for any graphic goings-on on screen, the film became a censorship cause celebre, being cut by the BBFC and attracting an obscenity lawsuit in the USA. Half a century later, what pushed at the boundaries of public acceptability now carries a PG certificate.
A story made up of distinct episodes is another Ophülsian trait: Letter from an Unknown Woman is another put together that way, and so would Lola Montès, his final film, be. So it’s no great surprise that Ophüls would attempt a portmanteau film, and that is Le Plaisir, possibly the least well known of Ophüls’s last four French-made films but it’s up there with the best of them. Both Stanley Kubrick – whose use of a moving camera was avowedly influenced by Ophüls – and Jean-Luc Godard named it as a favourite film of theirs.
Guy de Maupassant, one of the masters of the short story (verging on novella-length in the case of “La Maison Tellier”), becomes another of Ophüls's masters of ceremonies, along with Walbrook in the earlier film and Peter Ustinov in Lola Montès. Actually, both of those men have a part to play in Le Plaisir. The present version features Servais's narration and is entirely in French, other than some English dialogue from some sailors near the start of “La Maison Tellier”. However, there were alternate English- and German-language versions released, with the narration in those languages, although the on-screen dialogue remained in French – and Ustinov and Walbrook respectively provided those narrations. (This rather negates the point of Servais appearing on screen as Maupassant in the final story, relating it to an unseen friend.) Whoever's voice you hear, the intent is clear. The protagonist of “Le Masque” is a foolish old man, but he’s a pitiable one, desperately hanging on to his youth while his long-suffering wife looks on. “La Maison Tellier” is in a lighter vein, but it’s remarkably non-judgemental for its time – for Ophüls, even a prostitute can have a moment of epiphany, a sight of love. “Le Modèle” is a darker story, which ends with our two lovers inextricably bound together.
Le Plaisir is a delight in its command of mood, with Ophüls’s camera constantly on the move, alert for the slightest of nuances. Of course it’s that mobile camera that is the most obvious signature of this director’s style – though I’d also point to his staging in deep focus – and there are a couple of stunners here. The introduction to “La Maison Tellier” is one: as the brothel closes down for the night, the camera, on a crane, climbs up the walls, looking in through each window in turn. This does have a purpose other than a display of virtuoso camerawork and showing off Jean D'Eaubonne's production design. Madame Tellier and her charges may be among the happier sex workers you'll find on screen, but that's deceptive. The camerawork frequently shows them from outside, framed within the frame by slatted and shuttered windows. The sojourn in the countryside – and from the studio into an open-air location – is an interlude of freedom in an otherwise circumscribed life. “Circumscribe” means to draw a circle round something, and that's what Ophüls's camera does.
The other virtuoso shot is at the climax of “Le Modèle”: a conventional panning shot which somehow, and seamlessly, turns into a subjective-camera shot which goes up a flight of stairs (and you can see the set below between the steps) and…well, I won’t spoil that for you. Nods must be made to the DPs: Christian Matras shot the first two stories (and would go on to shoot Ophüls’s last two films), while “Le Modèle” is the work of Philippe Agostini. “Le Modèle” was a late replacement for another Maupassant story which could not be financed.
Of the eight feature films Ophüls made after World War II, the first of the four American productions, The Exile, is the one noticeably missing in action in the UK: no VHS or disc release, and no television showing since 1978. Le Plaisir, while it has been available for home viewing before, though would seem to be the one of the eight not shown on British television, is sometimes overshadowed by the film before and the two after it in Ophüls's filmography. It is still a key work from a great director. Pleasure is the right word for it, but as always with Ophüls, it's a bittersweet pleasure.
Le Plaisir was previously released on DVD by Second Sight in 2006. One of the extras from that disc has been carried over to Arrow Academy's Blu-ray, but others have not. Completists might wish to hold on to their DVDs for Todd Haynes's introduction and a piece by Jean-Pierre Berthomé on the writing of the film.
This is the full French-language version of Le Plaisir. The version which opened in the UK in 1953 – passed with a X certificate by the BBFC, restricting it to the over-sixteens: it's now a PG – had the Ustinov English narration. That was also a shortened version (91:42 – the present Blu-ray runs 97:13), with two sequences cut from “La Maison Tellier”: the flower-picking expedition in the fields, and the farewell at the train station.
As with all of Ophüls's films except his final one, Le Plaisir was shot in black and white and Academy Ratio (1.37:1), and the ratio of this Blu-ray is correct. Each story has a distinct look: high-contrast, almost Art Deco, for “Le Masque”, a lighter greyscale in “La Maison Tellier”, darker and shadowier for “Le Modèle”. However, this Blu-ray transfer is a mixed bag. At times, detail and contrast are excellent, but at others less so, with whites more than a little blown-out in places. A section towards the end of “La Maison Tellier” seems to have come from a different source to the rest of the film, possibly a dupe negative, and the loss of one or more generations from the source is quite noticeable – more about that below.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and clear and well balanced. English subtitles are optional. I spotted one typo in them: “neighboyrs” at 17 minutes. Subtitles are also optionally available for the on-disc extras, which are all French-language.
The on-disc extras begin with “A Journey Through Le Plaisir” (57:03), the one extra carried over from the previous DVD release. A documentary for French TV, this comprises of a revisit, some fifty years later, to the Normandy location where Ophüls filmed “La Maison Tellier”, with interviews with cast and crew members, locals who were there at the time, and a couple of film critics. It’s a little too leisurely for my liking – it could have been tightened to half an hour quite easily – but it’s a pleasant watch that should appeal to fans of the film.
“Diary of a Film Shoot” (32:46) isn't really what the title suggests, but rather an interview with the assistant director Jean Valère. He's clearly quite elderly (he died in 2017, aged ninety-two) but his memories are clear. He talks about acting as a location scout for Ophüls, finding the necessary ones around Caen. He also talks about his regard for Ophüls, discussing the mechanics of some of the more intricate shots, including the two I've singled out above.
Ophüls's son Marcel is a distinguished filmmaker in his own right, though of a very different kind. He is best known for documentaries examining wartime guilt, the best-known one being the four-hour The Sorrow and the Pity. Here he contributes a short piece (13:43) which is a tribute to his father and to this film. As well as Marcel Ophüls speaking to camera, the piece includes a new interview with Daniel Gélin and archival ones with Danielle Darrieux and the camera operator for the first two sections, Alain Douarinou.
A short featurette (6:40) discusses film restoration and the particular issues with this film. Part of the emulsion of the negative had succumbed to mould, so other sources had to be used for sections of the film, and both photochemical and digital processes applied. Finally on the disc is the lengthy (4:16) theatrical trailer.
The first pressing of Arrow's Blu-ray includes a thirty-two-page booklet. This begins with cast and crew credits for the film and ends with transfer notes and disc/booklet credits, and in between are two new essays. “Pleasure and Pain” by Alexander Jacoby gives Le Plaisir its place in Ophüls's filmography, pointing out themes it has in common with other films of his, including some from the 1930s which are very hard to see nowadays. (Only La Signora di Tutti and Liebelei have been in UK distribution in the last thirty-five years at least, with the latter having had one television screening as I write this.) Inevitably, the content of “Le Plaisir, or Desire for the Absolute” by Philippe Roger overlaps with this, beginning with an overview of Ophüls's life and career, but it is well worth reading for its detailed analysis of the use of music in Le Plaisir. It also discusses the thematic and visual symmetry of the film, especially in the two shorter tales which begin and end it.