Le Plaisir Review
Le Plaisir is based on three stories by Guy de Maupassant, two short ones of around a quarter-hour each bookending an hour-long central section. In “Le Masque”, 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. When he collapses the truth is revealed: he's an old man, trying to regain his youth. The longest story, “La Maison Tellier”, concerns a group of prostitutes visiting the countryside to attend the christening 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.
In 1950, Max Ophuls returned to France, where he began which would be the last four films of his career. The first of them, La Ronde, is not part of Second Sight’s Ophuls Collection. (The BFI did release it on VHS, on their Connoisseur Video label.) It 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. This must surely have attracted Ophuls 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 Ophulsian trait: Letter from an Unknown Woman is put together that way, and so would Lola Montès be. La Ronde is a series of ten short episodes, joined together by Walbrook’s master of ceremonies. So it’s no great surprise that Ophuls would attempt a portmanteau film, and that is Le Plaisir, possibly the least well known of Ophuls’s final 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 Ophuls – and Jean-Luc Godard named it as a favourite film of theirs.
Maupassant, in the voice of Jean Servais, introduces the films from a dark screen.
All three stories are variations on the theme of pleasure and its price. 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 Ophuls, 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 Ophuls’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. 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 Ophuls’s last two films), while “Le Modèle” is the work of Philippe Agostini.
As with the other discs in Second Sight’s Max Ophuls Collection, Le Plaisir is released on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. As I say above, this is the original French-language version of the film, with narration and dialogue in that language throughout. (English- and German-language versions exist, with the narration supplied in those languages by Peter Ustinov and Anton Walbrook respectively, while keeping the dialogue in subtitled French. This rather negates the point of Servais appearing on screen to tell the story of “Le Modèle” – which we see in flashback - to an unseen friend.)
As before, the DVD transfer is in 4:3, respecting the Academy Ratio of the original film. Like all the other films in the Collection (indeed, like all of Ophuls’s entire output except Lola Montes), Le Plaisir was shot in black and white. The DVD has an excellent transfer, faithful to the different moods of the three stories: a high-contrast, almost Art Deco look to “Le Masque”, a lighter greyscale in “La Maison Tellier”, darker and shadowier for “Le Modèle”.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and none the worse for that. Subtitling is an issue with Second Sight’s discs: the two English-language films have none. Needless to say, the two French-language films do have them, but they are fixed, which may be a demerit for anyone fluent in French, though to my mind it’s a lesser sin. They are in a white font and always clearly readable.
Of the four DVDs in the Collection, Le Plaisir is the best-endowed with extras. As he does with The Reckless Moment, Todd Haynes provides an introduction (17:41), though that is misleading – don’t watch it until you’ve seen the film as it contains major spoilers. Once again, Haynes impresses with his enthusiasm and his in-depth knowledge of a director he clearly idolises. If there are to be further Ophuls releases, let’s hope he’s involved with some of them.
The longest extra is “A Journey Through Le Plaisir” (54:42), a documentary for French TV. This comprises of a revisit, some fifty years later, to the Normandy location where Ophuls 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. That location shoot also features in “Moments from Le Plaisir: A Photographic Short Story”. This is a text-based extra (written by Philippe Roger, maker of the documentary above) which includes many still photographs taken at the time.
Finally, there is “From Script to Screen” (19:54), a piece by Jean-Pierre Berthomé, author of Le Plaisir: A Critical Study. This is a quite in-depth study of the writing of the film, including extracts from the shooting script. Interestingly, Maupassant’s introductions were originally meant to be conversations with another figure referred to as “Le Cinéaste”. “Le Modèle” was a last-minute addition when another Maupassant story became impossible to finance.
Le Plaisir was released in the year that Max Ophuls turned fifty, and it shows a director working at the height of his powers. Second Sight’s DVD is up to the standards of the other discs in their Ophuls Collection, and in terms of extras surpasses them.