I’m now halfway through Max Ophuls’ unfortunately short filmography, and I’m finally getting a firm grasp on his work. Dismissed, much like Douglas Sirk, for focusing primarily on the stories of love and women, with an air of romanticism and melodrama, Ophuls’ work is deceptively simple. There seems to be a recurring theme throughout his films, a yearning for love, and the disappointment when it fails to meet our expectations. Even The Reckless Moment, a noir about a mother covering up a crime deceives our perceptions of a mother’s love, and even the sanctity of marriage. This isn’t to say his films are consistently cynical or even tragic, though these elements certainly are often present. Sometimes, happiness and love is able to creep on on us, however briefly.
Le Plaisir is three stories from Guy de Maupassant, about love and lust. All three handle the idea of pleasure, and the disappointments they bring when they fade away. The first story depicts the story of an old man who goes to dances with a mask of a young man, the second is the story of a “house of pleasure”‘s vacation in the country, and the third about the love of an artist for a model that fades all too soon. Ophul’s style replicates the ideas that run though these films, the constant moving camera, in a way replicating the constant ebb of life, and the constant movement of time. It’s as if, once we stand still everything loses it’s sparkle. The moment we stop moving, it’s as if love itself starts to fade away, and we are forced to move on to something or someone else, at least if it’s possible.
The film’s final line, “happiness is not a joyful thing”, is still beyond my grasp. A hint perhaps that nothing that’s impermanent cannot be truly joyful? As lust is never permanent, neither is pleasure. We are constantly pursuing what we don’t have, and holding on to what once was. The first story especially is about that yearning for youth, and the pain he suffers to relive it. His wife accepts his promiscuity, because she loves him. It’s a strange situation that one would not usual expect, especially with so little bitterness. Tired and sick, her only wish is that he could wake up the next day ready to reprise his act, because his happiness brings her happiness. It’s a sweet sentiment, in spite of the pitiful nature of his yearning.
The second story is a meeting of purity and promiscuity, and in a purely Ophuls way, both are held in the same light. It’s not a necessarily romanticized vision of a whorehouse, but rather a down to earth appreciation of a woman’s trade. It’s made explicit that the people of this town view the nature of this house as being a respectable trade and position, and the girls are never used or abused in any discernable way. Their voyage to the country for a communion, is met with a sort of fish out of water. People don’t look or tease them, but they seem to have an effect on the world around them. The scene in the church especially, as they’re suddenly overcome with emotion, so is the rest of the parish. Are they crying for their lost innocence? An appreciation beyond their tricks? Something else? I’m leaning towards the first, and I’m not sure it’s related to sex, but more a series of broken dreams and expectations. When you’re young, everything seems possible, and when it suddenly becomes clear that happiness isn’t, for a while, it seems impossible. However, when they finally return home, it’s with a renewed passion for love, lust and life. It’s strange and unexpected, easily the happiest of all three stories.
The third story, probably my favourite, is about the love an artist develops for his model. It’s self reflective, a commentary as much on love, as on the artist. The affection one has for a work in progress, only to grow tired of it as we’re ready to move on to the new work, the new style… the model becomes obsolete, and if we can’t let go, chaos ensues. The relationship between the artist and his model is bittersweet, defying sanity, and reason. At one moment evoking a sort of New Wave memory, before returning to the hardened tragedy that Ophuls made a career of. The final moments of insanity, seem to be perfectly in tune with what love is. It’s not an area o reason, but of pure emotion, and even the expectations of love itself should never be seen as truths. Yet, like all the shorts, it manages to end on a note that we need to accept these falsities because even though happiness cannot bring us joy… we can still have a lot of fun.