“But, my friend, happiness is not a joyful thing.”
Was Max Ophuls the greatest, the most perfect of the classical film-makers? In a series of masterpieces throughout three decades (the 1930s, 40s and 50s) he composed images with the soft luminescence, hazy or precise, of Degas (with a similar feeling of constant movement), and stories of a genuine, often forgotten or misunderstood, hardness; stories that reminded us that life is lived under the constant, lingering cloud of melancholy and frustration even in the lightest or most joyous of moments. At the end of Le Plaisir the journalist who is presented as a sort of incarnation of Guy de Maupassant informs his unnamed friend that happiness, true happiness, is not enjoyable or joyful; that, instead, it seems a sort of submission to and understanding of the constant, inexorable flow of life living itself out no matter the consequences. Life in Max Ophuls films moves like his famous camera.
Le Plaisir was the second film Max Ophuls made after his return to France in 1950 and it reuses the anthology format of the first, La Ronde. This time the three stories told are adaptations of short stories by Guy De Maupassant; the first and third segments (The Mask and The Model) run between 15-20 minutes, and the second (Madame Tellier’s Establishment) runs just under an hour. The Mask and The Model are Ophuls painting in his darkest, most pessimistic shade; Madame Tellier’s Establishment has something of the spirit of Renoir and Becker in its bittersweet juxtapositions and intertwining of freedom and (luxurious) imprisonment, the nocturnal city and the sun-dappled Provence. And make no mistake- this trio of tales represents one of the greatest gifts in the history of cinema, the product of a master working at the dizzying heights of his powers and forming a striking essay on the misères of plaisir.
What we learn very quickly is how pleasure, happiness, can become a sort of prison in itself. Nowhere is this clearer than in those fantastic sequences which bookend Madame Tellier’s Establishment, sequences in which we are introduced to and inspect M. Tellier’s café-brothel as Ophuls’ camera scales and tracks across every inch of the voluminous façade and peers through every one of the many windows at the action happening within. Curiously we never once enter this building in the course of the film, and instead we are left with the impression not of the important social institution the male characters and M. Tellier believe the site to be (witness how quickly the men of the town devolves into arguments and fights once M. Tellier and her ladies close up for a Saturday to visit her family in the countryside) or the place of merriment and fun that might be suggested but of a sort of prison, holding the women within its bounds and obviously and conspicuously limiting their freedom of movement and their experience of the world in order to service the need of the town’s important men, all of whom are free to traipse around the streets at will (followed every step of the way by Ophuls). In a shot early in the tale we see Madame Tellier through a window, writing at her desk while a portrait of a severe-looking man stares out at her with an aggressive, dominating gaze. The message is clear- this film is about the way patriarchal power and the patriarchal version of pleasure exploits women and limits their own knowledge of the bounds of pleasure.
Already, at this point, we have been introduced to the wife and husband of The Mask. The husband was once a hairdresser of great renown, and a lover of even greater. He was a favourite of actresses and music-hall stars, and now he lives out his faded dreams and attempts to recreate his past in the cabarets and dance-halls of Paris, dancing all night in a rigid, surreal, waxwork-esque mask that gives him the appearance of eternal youth and hides the wizened, decaying face below. Meanwhile his wife, a loyal companion for years despite her husband’s philandering and abuse, waits for his body to be dragged home later once he is exhausted and has collapsed from his night’s joys. She is frustrated but still, somehow, devoted, wanting of nothing more than some reciprocation of the loyalty and love she has shown, but aware that it will never arrive and her husband will continue to neglect her for his desperate adventures. She seems unaware of or unwilling to accept any kind of life beyond this sort of servitude. This is not an outdated story; in the husband we can perhaps see something of the gaunt, aged ghosts-of-parties-passed that haunt the corners of raves and nightclubs in the 21st century as they attempt to recreate their own summers of love. In The Mask we truly see happiness as an unhappy and joyless thing; this is happiness as a trap courted, pursued and enjoyed with a pathetic, destructive abandon.
To return to Madame Tellier’s Establishment, we see the prostitute Madame Rosa (Danielle Darrieux) start to discover another sort of life outside of her usual servitude-amongst-the-trappings-of-opulence. She gathers glimpses of an alternative path amongst the sunlight and fields of the Provence, and in the care and affections of Jean Gabin’s farmer (Madame Tellier’s brother). In one of the most beautiful individual sequences in all of cinema Madame Rosa’s tears, caused by the simple innocent beauty of a traditional Christian Confirmation ceremony in an old church, sets off the rest of the congregation in a similar outpouring of emotion, while Ophuls camera tracks and floats above their heads like the Holy Ghost surveying its home and its parishioners (amusingly the scene ends as the real village Father begins his sermon). Ultimately, however, Madame Rosa and her colleagues return to the same bourgeois bores and the same prison-brothel they left behind, Ophuls camera once again scanning the outside and the perimeters of the building as the festivities restart, allowing us no entry and no sight of a woman being allowed to leave. Ophuls has returned us from the brink of hope to the bleakness of waste.
However there is no doubt that, for all it’s upsetting subtext (Gabin’s farmer promises to return to visit Rosa, but we can only assume it is as customer to a prostitute rather than as the countryside equals they were), Ophuls’ adaptation of Madame Tellier… is one of the richest and most pleasurable hours in all of cinema, a leisurely beautiful, wistful piece with images worthy of the great Impressionist painters.
The Model closes the film and forms, alongside The Mask, the almost jet-black bookend for the more delicately balanced and shaded Madame Tellier’s Establishment. Daniel Gelin’s painter falls in love with Simone Simon’s model, but early infatuation and artistic success lead to a feeling of suffocation on the part of the former, and desperation on the latter. Gelin flees, Simon follows him and at the cruel, sarcastic encouragement of Gelin, she throws herself out of an apartment window. We see them years later on a beach outside of Paris, Gelin pushing the wheelchair-bound Simon, and the journalist/old friend who has been relating the story to us (and who has assumed the voice of Maupassant) informs his companion that the two are locked in a perfectly unjoyful happiness.
Ophuls had originally planned to adapt another story, Paul’s Mistress, but the film’s financial backers were uneasy over the explicit lesbian love story it contained and The Model was Ophul’s hasty replacement. As such the film is a little rougher than the previous two stories, but it is also the most obviously energetic and dramatic. There are excursions to the country where the landscape seems more imbued with an unsettling, dormant Carrollian enchantment than the lush Impressionist glory of Madame Tellier’s Establishment, or the injections of German Expressionism of The Mask. There are also stretches of pure technical wonderment (the perfect choreographing of the argument between Gelin and Simon while the camera tracks their movements rapidly from room to room, the pan into a first person point-of-view when Simon ascends the stairs for her fateful leap) alongside glimpses of sighing daydream (the poor, happy days lunching in the garden, the lovers panning-shot meeting and seduction on the twin staircases of the gallery).
This is a short that, despite its late insertion into the screenplay, makes clear the themes of Le Plaisir. Gelin is the film’s final embodiment of the man who feels that he is owed everything and as such lives only for his own pleasure in capturing and possessing it all (like the husband of The Mask who keeps his unhappily devoted wife and chases his youth and other women, and the upper-class men of Madame Tellier… who feel entitled to financial and familial success and respectability while finding secret, illicit sexual satisfaction outside the home as often and freely as possible) and Simon is the film’s final embodiment of the woman who tries to live as fully as possible in reaction and relation to this exercising of patriarchal power. Indeed, Simon’s model may be the only female character who achieves a sort of personal victory, her man submitting to her will and way of things out of guilt. But the film clearly views Plaisir as something that, in its current form, ensnares all, which makes us (as the Maupassantian journalist puts it at the start of The Model) “…stupid, so we do stupid things”.
And so Ophuls was the finest artisan, the creator of a special, exquisite kind of candy: bittersweet nuggets of melancholy wrapped in joy, or joy coated in melancholy. That is not meant to sound reductive or derogatory; indeed if there is some list of the greatest European film-makers to be drawn up Ophuls is no doubt amongst the highest echelon and he may, ultimately, stand as the cinema’s sole creator of genuinely perfect films. He was the master, misunderstood and underappreciated in his time and never quite achieving the level of fame and acclaim he deserves since. Ophuls remains one of our finest visionary artists and one of our most simultaneously humble and erudite cinematic philosophers.