April 17, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Max Ophuls’s Le Plaisir

Le Plaisir. 1952. France. Directed by Max Ophuls

These notes accompany the screenings of Max Ophuls’s Le Plaisir on April 18, 19, and 20 in Theater 3.

Le Plaisir, like Charles Chaplin’s The Circus</a>, has suffered neglect over the years because it happens to be sandwiched in between two of its director’s most famous films. The Circus came between The Gold Rush and City Lights, and in the oeuvre of Max Ophuls (1902–1957), Le Plaisir comes between La Ronde and Madame de…. This neglect is especially unfortunate, for both The Circus and Le Plaisir go a long way toward expressing the personality of their respective creators. In fact, The Masque, the brief opening episode of the Ophuls film, encapsulates most of what Ophuls was all about in just a few minutes. The old man trying to disguise the realities of time’s ravages on him (and us) is far more poignant than one could easily imagine in a character we have just met. The reason is simple: it exposes a universal tragedy that none of us can ignore. The sequence is shot in perhaps the most spectacular display of the dazzling style emblematic of the director—all movement.</p>

Word has it that Le Plaisir was Stanley Kubrick’s favorite film, and one can certainly find parallels in the use of tracking shots by both directors—although Ophuls’s make much more sense. One might also mention Kubrick’s propensity for period precision (Barry Lyndon) and decorousness (Eyes Wide Shut). (Le Plaisir was nominated for an Oscar for best art direction/set decoration in a black-and-white film when it was finally released in America in the mid-1950s.)

The three stories that comprise the film are by Guy de Maupassant. Ophuls is essentially faithful to him, although he is less cynical and misogynistic (Ophuls was an ardent feminist). How the film is broken down into three ostensibly unrelated parts is interesting to explore. Actually, all of Ophuls’s work in his great late period in France (1950–55) is somewhat episodic, relying far more on parts that add up to more than a whole than on a conventional narrative. Although La Ronde hangs together in overall theme, it basically tells 10 short stories linked by Anton Walbrook and his carousel. Even the great Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…) and Lola Montes are episodic. Ophuls seems to close an incident that has occurred as part of a past that can longer be retrieved, as the heroine (especially in Lola) rides off in her coach to a new adventure and “love.” In effect, perhaps life is one long tracking shot. In the American release version of Le Plaisir, Peter Ustinov replaces Jean Servais as the narrator, and Le Modele is bumped up to precede La Maison Tellier. Although this may leave the audience in a happier frame of mind, it does somewhat change Ophuls’s intent. Le Modele ends with its heroine in a wheelchair. Lola Montes tells us that “life is movement.” In losing her mobility, the model, in effect, loses her life. In fact, since Lola is speaking for Max, the dictum that life is movement explicates Ophuls—his films, his tracking shots, his moving on to new episodes.

Since La Maison Tellier is, as Robin Wood has pointed out, a rare excursion for Ophuls into the out-of-doors, the fact that he chose a Maupassant vehicle so closely resembling Jean Renoir’s brilliant Maupassant adaptation, Une Partie de Campagne (A Day in the Country) (1936), shows a certain kinship and respect between these two men, whom Andrew Sarris considers the two greatest film directors. Both stories/films end in thwarted love affairs, and here (more than elsewhere), Renoir joined Ophuls in moving his camera to express his own romantic sensibility. After all, “life is movement,” and life must go on.