As with Jean Renoir’s “Everyone has their reasons,” it’s easy to misread Max Ophüls’s famous maxim (“Life is movement”) and reduce it to a comfy, affirmative aphorism. The Renoir quote is widely accepted as a warm shrug embracing all of humanity’s foibles rather than an acknowledgement of the difficult interlocking and relativity of lives, just as Ophüls’s statement can suggest the gracefulness of a universe in motion rather than the implacability of life’s forward momentum and the transience of emotion. The beauty and Mozartian sense of visual musicality of his work enhance rather than detract from Ophüls’s toughness, for, beneath the velvety suavity, the director’s worldview could be as bleak, savage even, as those of fellow Teutonic masters Von Stroheim, Lang, Wilder, and Preminger.
Guy de Maupassant’s sardonic pen would seem a perfect fit for the director, yet Le Plaisir, Ophüls’s adaptation of three of the writer’s short stories, both accommodates and questions de Maupassant’s cynicism. Often palmed off as a minor work sandwiched between the clarity of theme of La Ronde (which critic Robin Wood correctly tagged a “thesis” work) and the fullness of expression of The Earrings of Madame de…, it’s nothing short of brutal when it comes to depicting the human desperation of glittering surfaces. “I could be sitting next to you,” the Maupassant-as-narrator (Jean Servais in the original French version, but Peter Ustinov in the English-dubbed version, sounding a lot like Pepe le Pew) announces at the start, yet the tone remains ruthlessly detached, the better to enjoy the human spectacles of vanity, regret, and elusive romance. Ophüls’s justly celebrated mise-en-scène is at full throttle in the opening segment, Le Masque, with the camera picking up the swirling beat of a luxuriant 19th-century ball. Amid the festivities, a man decked in tuxedo, top hat, monocle, and mustache, virtually a parody of the dapper gentleman, rushes onto the dance floor to join the quadrille; in one of the most stunning of all tracking shots, Ophüls’s camera follows his strenuous pirouettes until the mysterious figure collapses.
The camera movement ranks alongside Hitchcock’s blurring of fantasy and reality in Vertigo and Antonioni’s magisterial final zoom in The Passenger, though here Ophüls’s spiraling track accentuates the character’s loss of control, like a puppet getting tangled over his own strings. The fallen dancer is shown to be wearing a mask, and the scissoring of the plaster façade reveals a breathless old man (Jean Galland) trying to fool age and resurrect past glories. If life is movement, stasis is, logically, death, and, as the Doctor (Claude Dauphin) accompanies the old man back to his home, he realizes the price of fantasy etched in the weary face of Gaby Morlay, Galland’s earthbound and long-suffering wife, who sees it as her duty to put up with her husband’s egotistical flights of fancy. Surely Stanley Kubrick studied Le Plaisir because Le Masque appears to withering effect in Eyes Wide Shut, his own vision of marital discovery, yet Ophüls’s touch is far more delicate than either Kubrick’s or de Maupassant’s, worldly without being jaundiced, and it is typical of his complexity that the adaptation remains faithful to the writer’s words while at the same time indicting the male egos in search of pleasure at the cost of a woman’s suffering.
Ophüls’s sympathy for women corseted within patriarchal grids is even more evident in the second episode, La Maison Tellier. The virtuosic crane shot inspecting the outside of a Paris bordello, gliding from window to window with the Madam (Madeleine Renaud), suggests the missing link between similar maneuvers in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise and Argento’s Tenebre, though the movement has the subtly constricting effect of surveying a dollhouse, with the women inside not only objects of pleasure for the male customers, but also objects of contemplation for the audience. Ophüls slyly hints that gender exploitation has become so ingrained into society that the cathouse is essential to keeping stability; on the Saturday night that the doors are closed, fights break out among men as the respectable pillars of society line up by the shore to bitch and moan. It’s the first Communion of Madam’s niece, so the jolly hookers take the day off to visit her family on the countryside. The pastoral vistas away from the city make this the most Renoirian of the episodes, a connection further clinched by the casting of Jean Gabin as Renaud’s earthy-peasant brother, whose daughter’s church ceremony the next day doesn’t keep him from taking an interest on one of the girls, Danielle Darrieux.
Again, Ophüls’s own view differs from de Maupassant’s, who went out of his way to depict the women as coarsely and stupidly as he could, staging their encounters with the rural community for derisive divisiveness. By contrast, Ophüls visualizes their presence in church as a profound mingling of the sacred and the profane, and his camera takes transcendental flight, literally. Diagonal tilts follow the beams of light, lyricizing the physical distance between religious statuary and human attendees, between spectacle and audience, and, most importantly, between an image seen and an emotion felt. Contemplating their own lost innocence, the women give in to the waves of feeling, spiritual rupture is evoked via pure motion, and a sublime 360° pan brings it all together into emotional community.
Back out in the fields, they savor one last meal before having to return to town, until Gabin makes a wine-fueled pass at Darrieux and brings things to a halt. Still, Gabin is the most sympathetic of the director’s male characters, his lechery an open and ultimately good-hearted impulse, free from the hypocritical sheen of the city men who visit the Madam’s gals while professing moral superiority—indeed, one of the movie’s most affecting shots follows Gabin’s lonely ride home after dropping the women at the train station. The crane movement is reprised to close the segment, again inspecting the bordello’s windows, only this time the activities inside can only be seen through semi-closed shutters, another view of whirling pleasure that, for all the merriness, can only scream entrapment.
It is typical of the misunderstanding of the director’s gaiety that this episode was shuffled around to close the English-narrated version of the film, the concluding twirl around the house sold as a happy ending. Ophüls’s original format, capped by the third segment, Le Modèle, is necessary for the crystallization of the previous themes, and for the final dissection of the nature of pleasure. The briefest of the episodes, it is also the most lacerating. “Possession is always followed by the disgust of familiarity”—it could be Peter Coyote talking in Polanski’s Bitter Moon, only it’s Jean Servais, the narrator, finally given human shape as the jaded friend of painter Daniel Gélin. The model of the title is Simone Simon, who first meets and captivates Gélin in an art gallery, a site of frozen beauty. “I adore your movements,” he tells her, yet even in their first moments together he is happiest when molding her into poses for his canvas, immobilizing her into objects of visual plaisir. His colleague’s dictum is promptly honored, and Gélin soon grows bored and aloof with Simon—the early, exhilarating lateral pan right in the night of the exposition is reversed, harrowingly, to the left later on as the trajectory of a domestic row, capped by the couple’s shattering of their own reflections in a mirror.
Le Plaisir illustrates not merely Ophüls’s unparalleled sense of flow and texture, but also his proto-feminism. His later films often take a male narrator, and, as noted Douglas Pye noted in a Senses of Cinema article, the film spends considerable time, through visuals, contradicting the all-controlling patriarchal voice. When Servais speaks of feminine “directness of sentiment,” he (and, therefore, de Maupassant) means it condescendingly as inferior to male rationality, for women are meant to be seen rather than heard, felt up rather than felt. That Simon refuses to be discarded by her lover’s wandering interest points to the film’s structure of awareness of and rebellion against the controlling gaze, the last progression from the passivity of the wife in the first episode and the spiritual epiphanies of the women-for-rental in the second episode. No longer kept in rigid poses, the model is dumped unceremoniously by the artist—bursting into Gélin’s atelier, Simon is goaded into jumping out the window, and, for the only time in the film, Ophüls’s camera shifts into point of view for the swan dive. Both legs broken, she forces Gélin into marriage, a grotesque victory that, paradoxically, seals her freedom. In a society built on the oppression of a gender, where pleasure is not only ephemeral but one-sided, Ophüls says, female assertion can only erupt through such dreadful acts of revolt. “Life is movement,” but, as the narrator can only conclude, “Happiness is no lark.”