The screen is pitch black and we hear a voice..."I'm so happy to be talking in the dark as if I were beside you, and maybe I am." The speaker is Guy de Maupassant (voiced by Jean Marais), and Le Plaisir is three of his stories filmed by the great director Max Ophuls. The connecting thread? That pleasure, or even love, lies in how people intermingle their lives, with a shrug, assumptions, an apology, a thank you. Le Plaisir is not so much a sophisticated film of attraction and hope as it is a film of rueful wisdom. It's best to keep in mind while watching this movie that while life can be enjoyed, there are times when hope can disappear.
The three stories consist of, first, La Masque. We are in 19th Century Paris at the Palais de la Dance, where great, swirling balls are held. This is a place where young women hope to find pleasure and rich men; where old women chase memories and young suitors; where prostitutes and their pimps gather, where the men are young bucks and old goats, where "rough cotton to the finest cambric" can combine. One slender man in full dinner dress rushes into the palace and begins to dance with a beautiful young woman. He prances and kicks, yet his face is like a frozen mask of youth. He collapses on the dance floor and a doctor is called. When the doctor loosens the man's clothes, he finds...well, let's say that when the man is delivered home to his wife by the doctor, she tells him a story of the battle between pleasure and love.
In La Maison Tellier, we learn all about a cozy, friendly and long established brothel in a small town on the Channel coast. The bourgeois men of the town are as well-known there as they are to their wives. Then Madame decides to close her establishment for a night so that she and her girls can travel into the countryside to attend her niece's first communion. They have one or two adventures on the train. In the small village they spend the night with Madame's brother and meet the young girl. They attend the communion in the village church. They collect flowers on the way back, and are met with genuine affection and with great gaiety when Madame reopens her place of business the following night. We witness a touching story, as de Maupassant tells us, when pleasure and purity come together.
Le Modele gives us a story where pleasure struggles with moral decay, where "happiness is not a joyful thing." We witness a painter and his model meet, rapturously embrace lust and, as lust tires, recrimination grows. The love which endures as the story plays out may not be most people's idea of happiness.
This is a marvelously told series of stories. La Masque and Le Modele are relatively short bookends to the major tale of La Maison Tellier. With this one, it would be difficult not to become delighted and engaged with Madame and her girls and her brother. Even the puffed up townsmen are not without a sympathetic side; which man among us wouldn't mind being flattered, even for a price, by Madame's girls?
In the cast are some of France's best known actors, including Claude Dauphin, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Gabin, Daniel Gelin, Simon Simon, Madeleine Renaud and Pierre Brasseur. The Region Two DVD has a fine black-and-white transfer as well as several excellent extras, the best being an hour-long documentary titled "A Journey Through Le Plaisir: On the Trail of Max Ophuls." A special note should be made of the English subtitles. They are among the best I've ever encountered. I don't read French, but they seem to capture what I imagine is the rueful, humane and amusing tone of the original.