Sog.: dai racconti Le Masque (1889), La Maison Tellier (1881), La Modèle (1883) di Guy de Maupassant. Scen.: Jacques Natanson, Max Ophüls. F.: Philippe Agostini, Christian Matras. M.: Léonide Azar. Scgf.: Jean d’Eaubonne. Mus.: Joe Hajos. Int. Le Masque: Jean Galland (Ambroise), Claude Dauphin (il dottore), Gaby Morlay (Denise); La Maison Tellier: Madeleine Renaud (Madame Tellier), Danielle Darrieux (Rose), Jean Gabin (Joseph Rivet), Héléna Manson (Marie Rivet); La Modèle: Daniel Gélin (il pittore Jean), Simone Simon (la modella Joséphine), Jean Servais (l’amico/il narratore). Prod.: Édouard Harispuru, M. Kieffer, Max Ophüls per C.C.F.C. – Compagnie Commerciale Française Cinématographique, Stera Film. DCP. D.: 93’. Bn.
Considered by many as a masterpiece, Le Plaisir, composed of three separate episodes, was made right after La Ronde and three years after Ophüls’s return to Europe.
The first episode is Le Masque in which an old man does the rounds of all the balls he can find wearing a strange, spectre-like mask. He collapses in a moment of frenzied dancing. A doctor brings him home, still unconscious, and is treated to the wife’s resigned account of her husband’s past life. Next comes La Maison Tellier, in which a group of ‘residents’ of a brothel are conducted by their madam, the dignified Madame Tellier, to a First Communion service in the countryside. Rustic surroundings, the innocence of the young girls taking communion for the first time and the memory of their own childhoods plunge all the young ladies into emotional reminiscence. The final episode is La Modèle, in which a couple of young artists enjoy passionate love before getting tired of each other. He runs away. She threatens to throw herself out of the window. He doesn’t fail to believe her, but she goes ahead.
Each of the three stories is adapted from Guy de Maupassant: Le Masque, La Maison Tellier and La Modèle, which replaced La Femme de Paul at the last minute for financial reasons. The film is narrated by Jean Servais’s fine, bass voice which subtly connects the three tales. In his Dictionnaire du Cinéma, Jacques Lourcelles considers that the second episode, in which Jean Gabin plays a supporting role, is the most convincing. It shows Gabin at his best as a pleasure-loving and naïve country trencherman enjoying the volatile delights of sexual pleasure. The confrontation between two irreconcilable worlds, the rural and the glamorous which generates deep melancholy. And it is here, in this second episode, more than in the others, that Ophüls is at his height.
Cruelty, yet honed with great tenderness, is the pattern of Le Plaisir. Here short stories by Guy de Maupassant form a true triptych, in the sense that the film is an integral whole consisting of three related panels, not just a collection of episodes.
Le Modèle may be the greatest, partly thanks to the way Ophüls introduces Guy de Maupassant as a protagonist whose presence – and the interface between the teller and the tale – is unique. The narrator of the film has until now merely commented on previous panels in a manner similar to the meneur de jeu of La Ronde but now he “lends his voice” to “a Parisian scribbler”. This evolves into the possibly deepest investigation of the role of the author: a bystander or a participant, humanly present and thus also responsible? These are fundamental questions, which are touched on indirectly and lightly, yet with the same tragic absoluteness which will be soon evident in Madame de…
Le Modèle presents in quick flashes, as precise as scientific observations, the stages of love: falling in love, the crystallisation, the disappointment, the rupture, the melodrama, and finally the welding together in the great play of disappointment, repentance, jealousy and possessiveness represented by marriage as counterweight to love. There is fierceness in this account, a wild force, even brutality.
Maupassant, a friend of the artist (Daniel Gélin), recommends that the artist should leave the woman who has become cumbersome. “Was it love? Was it pride? She pursued him everywhere”, says the author-commentator-observer who advises that it does not pay to take life so seriously. But his meddling leads to catastrophe. The artist withdraws, refusing to believe in the absolute commitment of the woman’s love/possessiveness. She proves herself. In the sequence in which the dizzyingly subjective camera follows Simone Simon up the staircase and out of the window to the courtyard we get a signed-and-sealed mandate for marriage. The play of repentance and dependence.
There remains only a deserted beach, the inseparable couple – the artist and his wife… The author is marginalised. He is no longer welcome. He has too much guilt on his shoulders. His capacity to understand life and act in its best interests are in irreconcilable conflict.
Peter von Bagh, Le bonheur n’est pas gai (2014), edited and translated by Antti Alanen