I had the opportunity several years ago to see Max Ophuls' Lola Montes on a big screen during a college film series. I had already seen The Earrings of Madame De... on videotape some time earlier (and I like that one better of the two). My interest in Ophuls began when I'd read that he was supposedly an influence on Stanley Kubrick. I could see it in the mobile camerawork and long tracking shots Ophuls employed. His sensibility, however, could hardly be more different from Kubrick's. Ophuls is a compassionate romantic, a quality just as well illustrated by this anthology of tales from Guy de Maupassant as anything he did. It's another Albany Public Library acquisition that was recently released by Criterion.
The actor Jean Servais narrates as the voice of de Maupassant, who asks us to imagine him sitting next to us in the dark, telling his stories. We open in darkness as he introduces himself, and then we see a crowd gathering outside the Palais de Danse, including what looks like a heavily made-up dandy who's introduced by a master of ceremonies as Monsieur Ambroise, "the great quadrille dancer." He's actually not so great -- enthusiastic but awkward is more like it. Then he collapses on the dance floor. The rest of this short story consists of a doctor discovering that the man is wearing a mask, and is an old man beneath it. The doctor takes him home to a poor neighborhood and up several flights of stairs to a humble apartment, where the old man's wife explains that "He once had more triumphs than all the tenors and generals." She's glad he's grown old, but at the same time, exasperating as he can be, she wants him to "live long and carry on dancing." In a way, she's happy to see him happy.
The second segment is the longest of the three. "Don't think I write only sad stories," the narrator says before introducing us to what he calls "one of those houses," -- what an American counterpart would call a "disorderly house." It's a favorite hangout for many of the leading men in town. Cleverly, Ophuls shows us the activity inside exclusively through windows, often barred, making the place more tempting. It's really too good to be true, a gaggle of girls ruled over by a benevolent madam who closes up shop to take them all into the country to visit her brother and attend her niece's first communion. You get the feeling that the villagers may suspect what the women are, but no one seems to hold it against them. The mood is mildly comedic throughout, the humor derived from the quite innocent pleasure the prostitutes, garbed in their finest finery, take from the communion service and the chance to pick flowers in a meadow. They take their mood back home, and the reopened whorehouse experiences "a wave of innocent joy" when the regulars return. This, the narrator tells us, was "the meeting of pleasure and purity," while the final tale is a meeting of pleasure and death -- "not a physical but a moral death."
An old man at a beach recounts a tragedy from thirty years earlier. He recalls the time his best friend, an artist, fell in love with Josephine, a model (Simone Simon of Cat People fame) at a museum. She inspires his first successful work, and he buys them a home with the proceeds. But "contempt has always followed possession," and the artist begins to grow tired of her. He leaves her, but she tracks him down to his friend's pad, where they have a fateful showdown. In contrast to the mellow melancholy of the earlier segments, this story takes a sudden, shocking turn which I'm able to show you thanks to an intrepid You Tube poster. Spoiler warning: don't watch it if you want to watch Le Plaisir later with virgin eyes.
That bit gives you a hint of what Ophuls could do with a camera in the years before the Steadicam. And the end leaves us pondering all the stories we saw. The Criterion DVD translates the last line a little differently: "There's no pleasure in happiness," the narrator concludes. But aren't they the same? Maybe there's an element of escapism in the pleasures of Ambroise or the whores in the second episode that the artist can no longer afford, and whatever he gets in return, he'll always be conscious of a trade-off. But I'd rather leave the philosophical speculation to people who see the film themselves.
Neither Le Plaisir nor any of Ophuls' films will work for you if you can't empathize with the director's mood. His is a tragic sensibility tempered by compassion, if that qualification isn't redundant. Compassion may be the difference between the tragic and the cynical, and it's what makes Ophuls' films uplifting even when they're sad. Visually, this is one of those films (The Leopard is another) that are almost magic windows through which you can convince yourself that you're looking right into the 19th century. The cinematography is as colorful as black-and-white film can get, and the mobile camera immerses you in a richly visualized world. When you're in the right mood for a mild world of cinema that gets occasionally wild, this one may be worth your while.