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.

      Madame Tellier’s retinue of beauties are well-taken care of, but they are a bit like birds locked away in a golden cage. Madame Flora (Ginette Leclerc), Madame Raphaële (Mila Parély), Madame Rosa (Danielle Darrieux), and the others she has hired, have paid the price of a closeted life for their enjoyments. And what better way to reveal this by allowing them their Renoir-inspired day in the country. In the small town where Julia Tellier’s brother, Joseph Rivet (Jean Gabin) lives there are wild flowers, rows and rows of growing crops, gentle and innocent girls and boys, and an almost deafening silence that both delights and frightens these caged women. The scenes at night are particularly moving, where the visiting guests find they cannot sleep, unused as they are to the quiet loneliness of country nights. Rosa even takes Rivet’s daughter and her doll into her bed just to have company.
      Their tears that infect the moving religious ceremony the next day are the result, as I previously suggested of sentimentality; but they also suggest these ladies’ own dissatisfaction for what they have paid to live their lives. And all of them, despite the insistence of Madame Tellier that they must rush to catch the train back, secretly wish, clearly, they might stay on in the country village for at least one more night. Meanwhile, however, they have caused serious battles back in their town, as the visiting sailors and gentlemen both are set to male-to-male warfare without the gentle ministrations of their women friends.

     Several critics have pointed to Ophüls amazing use of the camera in this film, a camera that hardly ever stops its vast moving sweeps. For Ophüls, it is clear, the camera is not a photographic machine to “catch” images, but a roving being itself, like an eye that can transcend even what our human eyes might possibly witness. Horizontally and vertically, his camera is almost always, as film critic Robin Wood has written, “on the move.” Like a dancer itself, his camera is almost giddy in its attempt to take in the “pleasures” of life, whether that be a simple quadrille, a busy night of song and dance in the “maison,” or the simple joys of  leaping through a meadow in search of fresh flowers to bring back home. Even in the hushed cathedral where the children’s first communion takes place, Ophüls’ camera sweeps up with the angels depicted on the walls to the churches’ high vaults before spinning out to show the cathedral towers from the outside before it again descends with its angels back into the gathered congregation.
       Even on the train, Ophüls makes clear that the world he is depicting is about those who are either inside or out. The two local peasants who enter the car where the madames are gathered are only too happy to get outside into their own world again. And the lecherous traveling salesman, only too happy to be around so many beautiful women, is given and indecorous boot by the women when he tries to take advantage of the situation.
      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

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