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Le Plaisir
cast: Claude Dauphin, Madeleine Renaud, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Gabin, and Simone Simon

director: Max Ophüls

93 minutes (PG) 1952
Second Sight DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
Le Plaisir is based on three short stories by Guy de Maupassant, the first of which is Le Masque - a story about an ageing man who hides behind a mask in order to enjoy the Parisian nightlife and convince himself and those around him that he's still full of the vitality of youth. La Maison Tellier, meanwhile, sees a group of women temporarily shutting up shop at the brothel where they work in order to attend the Madame's niece's communion - a situation that annoys their punters but proves an emotional experience for the women themselves. Lastly, Le Modèle charts a relationship as it moves from intense love to equally intense anger and, finally, a shocking act of desperation.

As with the Maupassant's short stories (to which the film is predominantly faithful), Le Modèle and Le Masque are both much shorter than La Maison Tellier. This works surprisingly well though - there's a sense that the stories are as long as they need to be rather than that they have been needlessly stretched out/ cut down in order to make them uniform in length. Le Masque could have built upon the premise of the original short story in order to delve deeper into the life of the central characters, but it also works well as a snapshot that provides the viewer with a tantalising glimpse rather than a lengthy analysis. There is also effective use of narration, with Jean Servais lending his voice to the character of Maupassant (the real-life author of these tales is represented here as a commentating figure) and inviting us to take a journey into another world. Indeed, in his introduction to La Maison Tellier, the narrator says that we are about to view an adult fairytale, and Servais' mellow tones do an excellent job of enhancing this dreamlike feel.

The film's title translates as 'pleasure', and all three segments serve as meditations on this subject. Sometimes we see pleasure in the obvious, positive sense of the word, such as the first flush of love, the exuberance of a Parisian dance hall or, in the case of La Maison Tellier, the ironic scenario of a group of prostitutes becoming overwhelmed with pure emotion during a holy communion (a scene that's presented in a less comic light here than it is in the original short story). Indeed, this segment radiates joyousness, from the sight of the women decked out in their finery and carrying bunches of flowers, to the Madame's brother running alongside the train that his guests depart by. Other scenes radiate a dreamy atmosphere, such as a shot of one of the Madame's girls, Rosa (Danielle Darrieux), opening a window and looking out at the stars, or the men who frequent the brothel sitting together facing the harbour on a moonlit night. Indeed, even the brothel itself is presented as a lively, buoyant place rather than a seedy den of iniquity.

Though the film certainly represents pleasure in its purest form, Le Masque shows that pleasure can sometimes be an illusion - behind the mask, the old man is desperately trying to cling onto his long gone youth, while his dutiful wife takes care of him and turns a blind eye to his adultery. So, there is a sense of hollowness behind the glitz of the dancehall. Likewise, Le Modèle shows how a relationship that was once the epitome of happiness can disintegrate into rage and despair. Even La Maison Tellier has a bittersweet note in that some of its pleasure is transitory: when the women pick flowers in a meadow, for instance, there is a sense that this is a moment of happiness and contentment that perhaps can't be recaptured. Ultimately, this segment ends on an upbeat note, yet Le Modèle is more ambiguous in that the central couple are reunited but under less than positive circumstances. Here, we see Maupassant (he actually appears in this segment rather than just providing the narration) and a friend observe the couple, with the former commenting, "He found love, glory and fortune. Isn't that happiness?" His companion is slightly less enthusiastic and remarks that, "It's very sad." Yet Maupassant provides an interesting alternative view in the film's closing lines: "But, my friend, happiness is not a joyful thing."

Max Ophüls' films are renowned for their fluid camerawork and Le Plaisir is no exception. Le Modèle, for example, shows its central characters meeting and embarking on a relationship via a single long take shot that's both deft and visually stunning, while Le Maison Tellier features an impressive crane shot that moves around the exterior of the title house, looking in through the windows and following the Madame as she makes her way up the stairs from the ground floor and then along the building's upper level. So, as is often the case with Ophüls' films, the viewer feels as though they are looking in on the characters as they go about their everyday lives. Minimal editing also means that we feel as though we are watching the action uninterrupted rather than it being pieced together and presented to us, thus making it more natural and believable. A scene in Le Modèle, for instance, depicts an argument between the central couple and follows them as they charge from one room to the next, leaving disarray in their wake. Again, this is done in one shot, meaning that the scene has more impact than it would have done if it had cut back and forth and that the viewer gets a real sense of the heat of the moment. Indeed, of the whole film, this segment carries the greatest sense of raw emotion, which could be seen as surprising in that it was a last minute replacement for the original choice (which was ultimately deemed too controversial) and made with a limited budget. However, these factors are also beneficial in that they provide a sense of energy and immediacy, culminating in a bravura point of view shot that's as impressive as anything in modern cinema.

Le Plaisir serves as an impressive exploration of pleasure, considering the subject in both a positive and an ironic light. None of the stories stands out as the weakest of the trio, and each one is different while also being linked with the others by the common theme and Ophüls' trademark camerawork. However, describing this camerawork can't do it justice - as with Ophüls' other films, one must see it in order to truly appreciate it.

The DVD extras include a gallery of rare on-set photographs, script to screen comparison (several important changes were made, mostly concerning the third story and the role of the narrator) and an introduction by Todd Haynes, who does an excellent job of encapsulating each segment. The highlight, however, is a documentary that revisits the key locations used in La Maison Tellier, such as the church and the flower meadow. Combining the beauty of the Normandy countryside with a strong elegiac atmosphere (especially when we finally see Ophüls' old house), this is an emotionally potent experience and an excellent addition to a solid DVD package.

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