It's always struck me as more than a bit strange that in the pantheon of celebrity film directors, Max Ophuls never seems to get the recognition he is more than due. While savants (I won't deign to call them idiot savants since I'm feeling charitable) routinely espouse the virtues of Bergman or Fellini or Kubrick or even Douglas Sirk, for crying out loud, Ophuls routinely gets passed over, even though he helmed one classic after another and has one of the most innovative and influential styles of any mid-20th century director. In fact it's impossible to think of some of the swirling camera moves of Fellini in particular without seeing Ophuls' substantial influence. Luckily Criterion has come to the rescue with three way overdue releases (though I'm personally hoping ultimately for Ophuls' magnum opus Lola Montes, whose previous DVD release contains one of the most badly damaged soundtracks in recent memory), of which Le Plaisir, his 1952 portmanteau based on three stories by Guy de Maupassant, may be the best.
de Maupassant is rightly regarded as the father of the French short story, but he always seems to be slightly holding his nose at his characters' foibles with that typical Gallic superiority that has been so readily lampooned by comics for generations. That would seem to make him a strange bedfellow for Ophuls, who literally surrounds his filmic characters in loving camera embraces and an almost fatherly concern. As strange as it may seem, though, the two end up being a match made in heaven, though Ophuls does lighten the distaste factor that lies just beneath the surface of a lot of de Maupassant's writing. He also lightens de Maupassant himself, ironically making the author a friendly and all-knowing voice in the dark offering three depictions of that most elusive sensation, pleasure.
While the plots of these three stories are as wispy as pleasure itself, there's a melancholy subtext to all of them that unites them and grounds what would otherwise be rather transitory efforts, especially in the shorter bookending segments. "The Mask" follows the travails of an elderly masked man (Paul Azais) who collapses at a sort of Moulin Rouge can-can affair, revealing not only his age but his long suffering wife. The longer and most developed middle section, "The Tellier House" involves a trip to the country by a Madam (Madeleine Renaud) and her prostitute charges (one of them the gorgeous Danielle Darrieux) in order to attend the Madam's niece's confirmation. The closing episode "The Model" is perhaps the most disturbing, portraying the volatile relationship between an artist (Daniel Gelin) and his subject (Simone Simon).
While the fleeting nature of pleasure is explored in all three of these dramas, what is notable is the portrayal of women in each. "The Mask" finds the elderly gentleman lusting after nubile young women while his devoted wife suffers quietly at home (and actually not so quietly once a doctor brings the ailing man back to her). In the most interesting portrait of the dance between the sexes, "The Tellier House" shows not only the dichotomy of the Madonna-whore complex which seems to color many men's perception of women, it also highlights different reactions to that very complex: when the brothel closes so that the women can travel elsewhere, the entire town is put into disarray, yet out in the country (with some glorious shots that almost seem modeled on Claude Renoir), the women, notably Darrieux, find themselves almost worhsipped (especially by a very sweet yet intense Jean Gabin). And most tellingly, Simon's model in the final episode is forced to the most extreme measures when her lover abandons her cruelly, almost mockingly.
While the character work is strong in all of the stories, it's really Ophuls' overwhelming mastery of the camera, something for which he is rightly legendary, that ultimately lends Le Plaisir its lasting value. The camera swoops, darts and peeks through windows, grills, and around plants, almost as if we viewers are voyeurs let in on a very private dance between various people. The technical mastery reaches its apex in the third episode, with a completely amazing unedited POV shot that will knock any cinephile's socks off (I don't want to reveal too much lest I spoil the surprise). This sort of shot has become more commonplace with digital editing and Steadicam manipulations, but to think of Ophuls managing it in the relatively Dark Ages of the early 1950s is testament to his visionary genius and complete mastery of the film medium.
If you haven't yet delved into Ophuls' amazing oeuvre, there's probably no better place to start than with Le Plaisir, at least until a restored version of Lola Montes comes along (are you listening, Criterion?). The pleasure, as they say, will be completely yours, I assure you.