A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1952)

Pleasure, as the poets never tire of telling us, is inextricable from pain.  Le Plaisir is an anthology film dramatizing three stories by Guy de Maupassant that center on what has been called the pleasure-pain perplex. An elderly man nearly dances himself to death in an attempt to recapture his youth. The patrons of a brothel quarrel and even come to blows when they discover that it is closed. An artist marries his mistress to atone for his cruelty to her. Max Ophuls brings all of his elegant technique to the stories, including his characteristic restless camera, which prowls around the wonderful sets by Jean d'Eaubonne, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for art direction. It's also, like Ophuls's La Ronde (1950), an all-star production -- if your stars are French. Claude Dauphin plays the doctor who treats the youth-seeking dancer; Madeleine Renaud is the madame of the brothel, Danielle Darrieux is one of her "girls," and Jean Gabin plays the madame's brother, who invites her to bring the girls to the country for his daughter's first communion, hence the temporary closure of the brothel; Daniel Gélin is the artist, Simone Simon his model/mistress, and Jean Servais his friend who also narrates the final section. Of the three segments of the film, the middle one is the longest and I think the most successful, moving from the raucous opening scene in which the men of the small Normandy town discover the brothel closed into a comic train ride to the country, which is as fetchingly pastoral a setting as you could wish. The sequence climaxes with the filles de joie dissolving in tears at the first communion -- the little church in which it takes place is one of d'Eaubonne's most inspired sets -- then returning to town and a joyous welcome. Intriguingly, Ophuls never lets us inside the brothel: We see it only as voyeurs, through the windows. Nothing of this segment is "realistic" in the least, making the melancholy first and last segments more important in establishing the film's theme and tone. The first segment does its part to set up the course of the film as a whole, beginning with a riotous opening as tout Paris flocks to the opening of a dance hall, a pleasure palace, followed by scenes of lively dancing, then the collapse of the elderly patron, who is wearing a frozen and rather creepy mask of youth, and concluding with the bleakness of his normal existence, tended by his aging wife, who is fittingly played by Gaby Morlay, once a silent film gamine. The final segment is the bleakest of all, as the film concludes with the artist pushing his wheelchair-bound wife along the seashore, penance for having provoked her suicide attempt. The film leaves me with something like the feeling I get from the song "Plaisir D'Amour."


Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment. 
Chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie. 

The pleasure of love lasts only a moment. The pain of love lasts a lifetime.