Monday, May 8, 2017
Max Ophüls | Le Plaisir (House of Pleasure)
locked up in pleasure
by Douglas Messerli
Jacques Natanson and Max Ophüls (screenplay, based on stories by Guy de Maupassant), Max Ophüls (director) Le Plaisir (House of Pleasure) / 1952
Max Ophüls’ 1952 film, Le Plaisir, is a three-part film, based on stories of the French writer Guy de Maupassant. Together they can easily be read as what price needs to be paid by the guilty pleasures of life. All three stories are easy summarize: the first, Le Masque, concerns an elderly man, Ambroise (Jean Galland), who despite living an someone impoverished life with his hardworking wife (Gaby Morlay), still insists on attending the grand dances at the local dance palace, hiding his aging face behind a mask. Despite his slightly clumsy movements, he still charms the lady, particularly his dancing partner, Frimousse (Gay Bruvère). But on the occasion that this episode details, the old man suddenly collapses; a doctor is called, who takes him home, where Ambroise’s sad tale is revealed as told by his wife. Despite her husband’s unfaithfulness and his clearly delusional behavior, the wife still claims that she would prefer him as he is as opposed to a bed-ridden man nearing death.
The best of these tales, La Maison Tellier is based on the famed story about a well-run brothel, owned by Julia Tellier (Madeleine Renaud) who closes down her popular establishment for a day, taking a journey with her workers to the country to attend the first communion of her neice. Suddenly, released from their cloistered lives, the women come in contact with and engage with nature and, during the communion service, begin to cry at the vision of the innocence of those around them, before somewhat morosely returning to their night-time lives.
The least of these three stories is the last, Le Modèle, about a young artist, Jean (Daniel Gélin) who falls desperately in love with a model, Joséphine (Simone Simon), whose drawings and paintings of her turn him into a rich man. The two, however, almost immediately begin arguing, and eventually he leaves her, moving in with an artist friend (Jean Servais), who, although unspoken, has perhaps been jealous of the love Jean has focused on the young girl. When Joséphine finally discovers Jean’s whereabouts, he attempts to completely disavow her; she jumps from the top room of the building, breaking both legs, while in guilt and sorrow for his behavior he marries her and cares for her for the rest of her life.
Unlike de Maupassant’s cynical tone in the originals, the German-born, but Austrian-centered Ophüls is far more sympathetic with his “sinners”; indeed the director, through his connecting narrator (supposedly the voice of Maupassant) easily forgives characters without seeming to judge them as simply explaining the various kinds of entrapment in which they have found themselves as the price to be paid for the pleasures of the flesh.
This is particularly obvious in La Maison Tellier for which Ophüls built a completely functioning set, which could have been used inside and out. Yet Ophüls’ camera views the comings and goings and even the nightly activities of the lovely brothel completely from the outside, peeping in through windows and doors high and low, suggesting that by simply watching this work, we ourselves have become sort of peeping-toms, placidly watching the illicit behavior of some of the town’s major leaders without ourselves being willing to participate. Those “inside” activities are only for those who are willing to pay the price, not only the monetary cost for a pleasant night in bed with a woman, but the cost such pleasures general exact: the joys of simple family life and the beauty of even the nearby views Normandy ocean, which the customers only discover on the one night when the maison is closed.
As the film’s narrator makes quite clear, we, the audience, are also among those on the “outside.” Only if we can imagine the figures he shows us, intellectually and emotionally involve ourselves with their joys and plights, might we be invited in. Fortunately, this director is always happy to help us to find our way in.
Los Angeles, May 8, 2017