Directed by Max Ophuls
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 97 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 mono
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: September 16, 2008
Review Date: September 14, 2008
Anthology films were quite popular with moviegoers in the middle part of the 20th century. From England’s Quartet to America’s O. Henry’s Full House, the films entertained audiences with more than one tale within a feature length running time. Max Ophuls’ contribution to the fad is the best of all, Le Plaisir. Based on three very different stories of French short story artist Guy de Maupassant, Le Plaisir’s greatness comes from Ophuls’ uncanny ability to film disparate stories in such a way as to make them seem all of a piece. Grace, elegance, and personal identification are hallmarks of these three light stories which take place a century ago but could just as well have been set in the present.
The thin plot threads of each story are simple to recount: “The Mask” involves the collapse of a man (Paul Azaïs) wearing a mask at a ball and the ultimate revelations about him and his life. “The Tellier House” finds five prostitutes closing the brothel for the night and journeying into the country to attend the confirmation of the Madame (Madelaine Renaud)’s niece. “The Model” recounts the melancholy story of an artist (Daniel Gélin) and his erratic relationship with his muse (Simone Simon).
The three stories are all bittersweet reflections on man’s vanity and the quicksilver manner of extreme emotions like love and hate, burning white hot and then cooling quickly. Ophuls’ screenplay is very generous toward the female characters in all three stories: the longsuffering wife (Gaby Morlay) of the masked dancer, the prostitutes who are admired as ladies by the country folk and one (Danielle Darrieux) even becoming the object of devotion of the married brother (Jean Gabin) of the brothel’s owner, and the pitiable model who suffers the ultimate rejection when the artist abandons her to marry another.
But that cinematography! That’s the real star of the movie. The scenes are often filmed through windows and other openings allowing us to spy at the principals unafraid of detection, and the swirling, tracking camera just never ceases to amaze. A following and passing shot as the model rushes up a twisting flight of wooden steps on her way to commit suicide would be impressive even in today’s world of Steadicams and CGI, but to see it accomplished here decades before their invention is simply jaw-dropping and astonishingly effective. And for pure, unadulterated joy, just look at those pastoral shots as the whores gather wild flowers in a meadow, each of them overpoweringly beautiful and shot almost as if they were madonnas by their worshipful director.
The third segment’s being the most dramatic certainly offers Daniel Gélin and Simone Simon the opportunities to span the gamut of emotions from blissful first meeting (shot powerfully on a dual set of museum staircases) to their fateful, sad end, and both actors come through with magical performances. Madelaine Renaud as the all-wise Madame is similarly effective as is Danielle Darrieux as the object of affection of the sweet, simple Jean Gabin. Though the parts for these important French stars aren’t nearly as large as they had enjoyed in many previous and future films, their impact here is just as impressive, certainly adding to the class and sheen of this most effervescent of Max Ophuls’ creations.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is rendered faithfully here with Criterion’s customary windowboxing in play. Of the three Ophuls films released this month by Criterion, this one is by far the best looking with a rich, vibrant image with excellent grayscale boasting no print damage, scratches, or other annoying artifacts. Sharpness is not always top notch but on the whole is well above average. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
Once again, the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is the victim of its era. There is light hiss audible in the quieter moments of the film, and on occasion one can also hear some slight flutter on the soundtrack. And the track typically has little to no low end causing the dialog to sometimes sound harsh.
The disc begins with a 17 ½-minute introduction by filmmaker Todd Haynes filmed in 4:3. He’s well versed on the film and speaks lovingly of all its strong points, but once again, first timers would be well warned to stay away from this introduction until you’ve experienced the film yourself as his comments give away all of the surprises both in the plot and with the extraordinary camerawork on display.
The film was originally distributed in English-speaking countries with actor Peter Ustinov as the soundtrack narrator and in Germany with actor Anton Walbrook providing the narration. Excerpts from their narrations are provided here for the viewer to sample.
“From Script to Screen” is a 19 ¾ minute video analysis of the film by scholar Jean-Pierre Berthomé. Though his French accent is very thick, his analysis is an astute one, and he also discusses the original plans for the film’s third segment to be “Paul’s Mistress,” a far racier story than “The Model,” abandoned for cost and due to the wishes of a new producer brought in to finance the remaining third of the movie.
Three interviews with key personnel connected to the film are all presented in 4:3 and were filmed in 1989: actor Daniel Gélin (12 minutes), assistant director Tony Abeyant (13 ½ minutes), and set decorator Robert Christidès (15 ¼ minutes).
The enclosed 16-page booklet contains excellent stills from the movie plus an appreciation of the film by movie critic Robin Wood.
Another in the set of classic Max Ophuls cinematic gems, Le Plaisir is its title: pure pleasure from beginning to end. The release of three Ophuls movies by Criterion is one of the most important set of releases this year, and all come with the strongest possible recommendations.