LE PLAISIR (Max Ophüls, 1951)

First things first. If (like me) you know Max Ophüls’s Le plaisir from its U.S. version, you need to rearrange the order of the Maupassant stories in your head, and you need to imagine Jean Servais narrating in lieu of Peter Ustinov, who does so (irritatingly) in English. The long segment, about the Parisian brothel madam who discovers love in the country, occupies the middle position in the original. It tempers the opening segment, where a delusional elderly man pursues the sexual pleasures of youth through the agency of a plaster mask that mimics youth. In like manner, the concluding segment tempers the poignancy of the country excursion; a young artist falls in love with his model, discovering the mortal reality that lurks behind love’s mask. In their proper order, these segments make their ironical way from age to youth in order to consign human experience regarding love to a fatalistic mortal round.
     In “Le Masque,” the ball to whose motion Ophüls’s camera is breathlessly attuned stresses the “young” man’s whirling danse macabre—a dance to his collapse and the revelation of the reality his mask hides. The introduction of the second title, “La Maison Tellier,” imposes a semblance of order on the opening segment’s emotional chaos and mortal message. The “house” itself suggests a structure that might stabilize the indications of the preceding segment; but soon we’re off to the country (Tellier plans on attending her niece’s first communion), where we come up against another breathless figure: Joseph Rivet (Jean Gabin, superb), rushing by foot after the train as it takes Tellier and her prostitutes, including Rosa, with whom he partnered, back to the city and out of his life.
     “Le Modèle” ends on notes of mangled love: attempted suicide; crippling; self-sacrificing devotion.

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