June 01, 2008

Le Plaisir

Watching Le Plaisir, you realise imediately the crassness of much romantic comedy. Guy de Maupassant's stories and Max Ophuls's direction point us though in a different, more realistic and still amusing direction when we consider relationships between the sexes and the way that we obtain pleasure in society. Ophuls chose to direct three of Maupassant's stories: Le Masque, about an old man trying to recover the womanising dancing youth he had been, La Maison Tellier, about prostitutes and a madam on a trip to the country and lastly La Modele, about the relationship between a model and her boyfriend, an artist. The three short films are introduced by a narrator, Maupassant himself, and the last by a journalist. They are not equal in length nor similar in temprament: the first gives is sad and short, the second long and more buoyant and the third returns to a darker mood in its short span.

Three stories, and three narrations between them, beggining fantastically as Maupassant tells us that we are in the dark, and he is sitting next to us, illustrating with a wave of his hand the contours of the stories. But like any narrator Maupassant is unreliable: this film is a great example of literary criticism, Ophuls takes apart Maupassant's narration and his stories do not always fit with the narrators confident judgements. Sexual desire is at the centre of these stories. Sexual desire leads the old man up to the dance hall to frolic with the young, under a mask, but he cannot cope and collapses- having to be taken home. Sexual desire provides the trade for the brothel- but the women of the brothel in the countryside cannot escape that sexual desire- they are still desired and they find being desired a less disturbing place than the pieties of the church or the loneliness of a single, quiet bed. They want to be loved. Sexual desire though can never last long- the last story illustrates for us that fact: 'Familiarity breeds contempt' afterall.

What we discuss though here is the male observer: the observations made by the narrator are always from the male point of view. One of the ways that Ophuls subverts that narrator is by demonstrating that his judgements are prejudiced. Perhaps this is most evident in the last story- Le Modele- where the narrator tells us that women are fickle, but the model proves anything but- ruefully the narrator has to admit, perhaps I was wrong. There is more to this than that: for Ophuls shows us that in a world without women, men are reduced to dispute. When the brothel closes for an evening: the men of the town start to fight, without desire, we are left with competition. Desire is not what creates competition, but it is what satiates competition. In this world, violence is the result of the absense or the denial of what you desire. A woman attempts suicide when her lover says no, men feud when the brothel is closed.

If Ophuls is interested in the mechanism of desire, he is also interested in the way that we are temporarily diverted from it. Ophuls's camera for instance shows us a church which the prostitutes visit at the girl's communion: whereas in Maupassant the scene is a farce, in Ophuls he gets us closer to the view of the prostitutes. We recognise the incongruity of these sinners acquiring a spiritual side: but then as their tears, the tears in particular of the hardened Rosa, affect the entire congregation, we recognise a central Christian truth- the incongruity of any sinner approaching the church and also the majesty of human freedom, that no matter who you are, you are free to be inspired by the good. Throughout the film's city scenes we see the prostitutes behind the bars of the brothel, we never intrude into it and we perceive them as the commodities they are, once out in the countryside they gain a respectability and an anonymity which means they are no longer prostitutes but people.

The central theme to these films is that Ophuls replaces Maupassant's sarcastic look at human kind with a gentler examination of human folly. Ophuls does not beleive that desire is stupid and what is desired worthless. Rather he suggests that beauty can become part of an almost mystical experience- in Le Modele that is the attitude of the artist at first to his model. He has a sense that often love decays, often people are in situations which are unhappy, and that beauty and strength wither with age: but Ophuls does not mock human folly, he invites us to observe, to gently smile at his characters but ultimately to sympathise. His camera has an attitude and it is gentle and amused: tragedy strikes and terrifies, age withers and money corrupts and yet humans are still loveable in the world of Max Ophuls.


Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Sexual desire is at the centre of these stories. Sexual desire leads the old man up to the dance hall to frolic with the young, under a mask, but he cannot cope and collapses- having to be taken home.

Is this the central problem with it, Tiberius?

Gracchi said...

I'm not sure I got to the central problem here James- its a review I need to think more about.