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Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls) 1952


    Le Plaisir, a minor anthology delight from Max Ophüls that recounts three short stories written by Guy de Maupassant, describes itself fairly accurately when an actor playing Maupassant prefaces his narration of one of the segments by calling it a “fairy tale for adults.” Like most children’s fables, Le Plaisir is a moral cautionary tale, but this one deals frankly with sexuality and adult passion. Using his full mastery of his skills, Ophüls demonstrates deftly here how tempting pleasure can be then quickly reveals it as a trap that results in its prey’s numbed senses and the willing succumbing to a false sense of reality. Perhaps the most glorious sequence of the film is its opening one, which takes place at a stunning ball. The elaborate sets and costumes distract the roaming camera as it chronicles the orgiastic frenzy that the dancers engage in. The skewed camera angles that Ophüls employs tells us that he doesn’t approve of what’s on screen, but we can’t quite guess why yet. Soon, though, it becomes apparent that his cinematic diversions were necessary because they illustrate how the rich could be distracted by the hustle and bustle of their lives. Some drama begins to unfold at the ball, but the organizers urge the attendees to continue dancing as it unfolds. With the ball as a metaphor, Ophüls stresses the willful obliviousness of the rich, and after a brief moment outside the excitement his protagonist here plunges happily back into it.


    In his second tale, he repeats the theme of pleasure masking introspection, as he tells a humorous, but touching, story of a group of prostitutes who close shop at their brothel one day so that they may attend a First Communion service in the country. The juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane here provides more than a few laughs, but it also fuels the story’s message. The loud women are used to the noisy distractions of their lives in the city, and when they are cast into the more thoughtful and religious world of the slow-paced country, it prompts a pensive moment or two that do much to reveal to us their unstated desires. Instead of mocking the ladies, one gets an impression that Ophüls sympathizes with them and admires their chance to take a look at themselves. They provide a distraction for the men that frequent their brothel (again his impressive tracking shots seem to get lost in the flow of the brothel’s business as it moves from window to window peering voyeuristically through each of the building’s windows), so their break from their duties is something disruptive for both them and their customers. Like the first story, this segment ends with a reversion to normalcy, and an attempt to blot out the disappointments wrought by meditation by returning to the celebration.


    The third story in this trilogy slightly alters the theme. In telling the tale of the obsessive romance between a painter and his model, it suggest that after passion and pleasure fade from a passionate affair, love often remains, and creates a more lasting bond.  Though it’s the least involving of the stories, it’s also the briefest. Ophüls’ cinematic technique seems less adventurous here, though there is an impressive suicide attempt filmed from the first-person perspective. Still, it’s effective because it manages to convey the emotional intensity that draws the lovers together. Taken together, these stories add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. The compelling argument that the film makes about the dangers of pleasure might be convincing, but I think there’s little danger in surrendering yourself to the bliss found in Ophüls’ filmmaking.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman