Janet Jackson taught Judge Daryl Loomis all about the pleasure principle.
Lookin' for the heart of Saturday night.
The thing's we'll do for a little fun. To dull the boredom of everyday life or to forget the sting of a bad day, people everywhere look for ways to pass the time. Whatever they find, the desire is pleasure, whether shallow and short-lived, or deep and long-lasting. To explore this end, Max Ophuls directs Le Plaisir, an adaptation of three short stories by Guy de Maupassant that explore the beautiful, the sensual, and the destructive ways in which we try to make ourselves happy.
Facts of the Case
"Le Masque": A strange-looking man in a suit, top hat, monocle, and moustache, the mockery of a dandy, crashes an elegant ball. Joining in the dance, he flails wildly until he collapses. The doctor attending him sees that the man is in a mask and removing it reveals a very old man. The doctor walks him home and, when they arrive, his wife explains to the doctor what has driven her husband to this madness.
"La Maison Tellier": On a random Saturday night, the men who normally frequent a high-end brothel are shocked to find it closed. Faced with nothing to do and refusing to go home to their wives, the men take a stroll. All their pent up energy leads to fighting and the fun they are accustomed to having on their night out turns sour quickly. Meanwhile, the Madame Danielle Darrieux, 8 Women) has simply given the girls the day off to travel to the country and see her niece have her first Communion. After the girls have a little fun of their own, La Maison Tellier will be back to normal.
"Le Modèle": An artist falls in love with his beautiful model (Simone Simon, Cat People), who becomes obsessed with him. He refuses to marry her, though, and finally leaves. When she finds out that he's planning to marry another woman, she locates him with an ultimatum that could tear him apart.
We are eased gently into this series of stories by Jean Servais, narrating as the voice of de Maupassant, who tries to befriend us before we journey with him through these worlds of pleasure. The stories "Le Masque" and "Le Modèle" are short cynical bookends to the longer and much more lighthearted centerpiece of "La Maison Tellier," but all three are strong stories on their own. "Le Masque" is a somewhat horrific way to begin an exploration of pleasure. This anonymous man looks frightening in his disguise, and his dancing only makes this more pronounced. The girl he' starts dancing with seems flattered by his compliments and barely notices his pale face until he collapses. Now, his wild movements stop and everyone can see the mask. This man threatens his health to have some fun and, when it fails, the organizer finds a doctor attending the ball and ruins his good time by begging him to work. Obligated, the doctor takes the old man home where the wife tells the story. Once a womanizer, the happiest day of the woman's life was when she noticed her husband's first grey hair, signaling the end of his philandering ways. Devastated by the loss of his looks, he dons the mask to try and refuel the old fire. In "Le Masque," her misery had always been his pleasure but, in their old age, the tables are turned.
Much breezier than its predecessor, "La Maison Tellier" is a simple story of the whores who go to the country and the townsmen who need them back. These men, allowed only one night out a week, take pleasure in nothing besides their visits to the brothel. When they arrive to find it closed, they don't know what to do with themselves. Walking and talking may seem like a good way to have some fun but, when you put a dozen horny old men together with nothing to do, it's no wonder that a fight breaks out. Because their happiness is so integrally wrapped in the brothel, the sight of it closed is pure death. On the other hand, the girls are having a blast out in the country. Flirting with the locals, angering the old biddies, it all comes with the territory. These are nice people, though, and not out there to ruin Madame's niece's first Communion. They are there to share in the pleasure of the family. Their entire lives are wrapped in pleasing the townsmen; breaking away from that for a day is as pleasurable a time as they can imagine and, when they return, relaxed and refreshed, the men will no longer need to worry.
The shortest, but most biting, of the three is the final story: "Le Modèle." At only seven minutes, it still carries the most weight and leaves the most lasting impression of the three. It is not hard to see how the artist could fall for the lovely Simone Simon and, for a while, there is nothing in the world to him other than her. But they move in together. Familiarity breeds contempt and, soon, they realize that they can't stand each other. What was once bliss turns rotten and, in order to have a shot at finding pleasure again, the artist leaves the model. In so doing, he deprives the model of her pleasure, and that won't stand. She'll go to the farthest extreme to satisfy her desires; nobody else matters at all.
Max Ophuls, on top of the strength of his source material, put together a masterful collections of short films that meld together in a cohesive whole while allowing each of them, much like the very pleasures Ophuls describes, to retain their individuality. The narrator keeps the thread together on one hand and the stories all come from the same writer on another. Credit to Ophuls, however, for taking these three stories with very different themes and moods, relating them in a coherent way, and creating his own these on the search for pleasure over and above what de Maupassant intended. Framing the lightest segment with the darker ones, and ending on the darkest note of all, no less, Ophuls somehow still mutes the cynicism of the original work, which reveled in the darkest aspects of the characters. The first segment is unsettling; the second happy and full of flourish; the final telling a brutal truth. All of them together actually make me feel good about the pursuit of pleasure, destructive pitfalls included.
Le Plaisir is beautifully shot by Ophuls with attention to fine details. The film is packed with sweeping tracking shots and constantly changing perspectives. The lighting and camera shots are often put at opposing angles, adding to Joe Hajos already delirious music. With strong performances all around and a great sense of style, Le Plaisir is a true pleasure to watch.
Released by Criterion, the disc for Le Plaisir is very good. The full frame image, while slightly windowboxed, is completely free from transfer errors, but there is a noticeable amount of damage to the print that could not be cleaned. The black and white contrast is mostly strong, but there is some occasional flickering of the image, especially in the outdoor night scenes. The mono sound is clear and without any background noise. Criterion's usual slate of extras round out the disc with highly personal and informative interviews with members of the cast and crew, an introduction from director Todd Haynes (Safe; if you haven't seen the film, don't watch this first), a video essay, and the English and German versions of the opening narration, done by Peter Ustinov and Anton Walbrook, respectively.
Absolutely up to Criterion's standards, both the film and disc of Max Ophuls's Le Plaisir are fantastic.
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