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Three stories about pleasure. The first one is about a man hiding his age behind a mask to keep going to balls and fancying women, pleasure and youth. Then comes the long tale of Julia Tellier (Madeleine Renaud) taking her girls (whores) to the country for attending her niece's communion, pleasure and purity. And lastly, Jean (Daniel Gélin) the painter falling in love with his model, pleasure and death.Written by
Profound, clever, incredibly beautiful work by the genius Ophuls
Is it possible to take one of the best tales in French literature and make a film even better out of it? Yes, it is. The tale is Maupassant's "La maison Tellier", the film-maker is Max Ophuls, the film is "Le Plaisir". In fact, the movie is divided into three episodes, corresponding to three Maupassant's tales. In the two short introducing and final stories we actually find the bitter, acid, misanthropical sarcasm typical of Maupassant's style, though softened by Ophuls' sympathy for human unhappiness.
What really stuns the viewer is the central episode, the sumptuous narration of "La maison Tellier". The story is the same in the book and in the film. A bunch of prostitutes from "La maison Tellier", the brothel of a French province town, takes a day off to go to a First Communion celebration in the countryside. But what a difference of mood. The fact is that Maupassant detested and despised people, while Ophuls manifestly loves them and is always ready to forgive their faults and pettiness. Therefore the writer's aggressive satire is replaced by the director's gentle sense of humor. The brothel is closed, and we shortly realize that the balance of the town, the whole social order is upset. Some sailors start a brawl, and that looks rather expectable. But even peaceful middle-class respectable citizens, long-time friends, begin to quarrel bitterly. "La maison Tellier" is the key of social stability!
Then the church-scene, a perfect blend of sweet fun and profound human feeling. Overwhelmed by the intense emotion of the First Communion Mass, the prostitutes burst in tears, and they carry all the villagers with them. I guess to have noticed a delightful nuance by Ophuls. The "beautiful Jewish girl" whom, according to the director (a Jewish himself), no brothel can afford to miss (!), at first tries to restrain herself. She's not Christian, she's not supposed to be moved! But, of course, she soon starts to weep... Great emotion, great art! And the women merged in the high grass, picking flowers... it's late, they risk to miss their train... but no! It's so a gorgeous day, let's go and pick some flowers! How poetic, how beautiful... what a fantastic scene! Needless to say, as soon as the women are back, peace, order, friendship are restored in the town.
The above comments can give a partial idea of the director's extraordinary treatment of the story. But it's important to remark that just the visual beauties and the camera work by the genius Ophuls are largely enough to place "Le plaisir" among the best works in the history of cinema. Let me just mention the first scene, when we peep inside the brothel together with the outside eye of the camera, which jumps from a window to another like a little bird. That is the most brilliant cinematic idea I can remember. A perfect film forces a perfect job by the cast. And in fact the acting is magnificent.
"Le plaisir" is a profound study of human beings, of their joys and sorrows, an instance of superlative good taste in treating a risky theme, a triumph of clever cinematic technique. A peak of the art of cinema.
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