Monday, June 13, 2011

FI: Le Plaisir

Le Plaisir (Pleasure)
France, 1952
Directed by Max Ophüls

Starring a coterie of French film stars (including Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, and Simone Simon), Max Ophüls's Le Plaisir is a filmic adaptation of three stories by celebrated French author Guy de Maupassant. As explained by the narrator Maupassant (Jean Servais), each of the stories concerns the intersection of pleasure with another aspect of life: love, purity, and death. Throughout, Ophüls's famous ever-moving camera dances a rondo around the actors, recreating through its movements an approximation of their emotional states.

The first tale, featuring a strange dandy's visit to a dance hall, makes the best use of Ophüls's (and cinematographers Philippe Agostini and Christian Matras) camera work and choreography. The last story, about a model and an artist in a turbulent relationship, also shows off Ophüls's skill at imbuing film style with emotional meaning. The middle section, in which the ladies of a brothel go on a holiday to witness their Madame's niece's communion, is the longest and least-engaging section of the film, and the one in which Maupassant's knack for quick characterization gets most watered-down by the demands of cinema. This had the effect of taking me almost completely out of the film until the third act began.

Overall, the film is stylish and uneven, not entirely unlike an earlier (and better) Ophüls film, La Ronde. There, at least, the transitions from segment to segment felt organic, while the stories in Le Plaisir don't quite feel adequately punctuated. Still, if you're an Ophüls fan, or enjoy excellent cinematography, costumes, and art design without as much concern for stories they service, you might find Le Plaisir less out-of-balance than I did.

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