Monday, April 18, 2011
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, René Blancard, Henri Crémieux, Claude Dalphin, Danielle Darrieux, Arthur Devère, Paulette Dubost, Jean Gabin
By Alan Bacchus
The title of this whimsical French classic translates to 'pleasure', a theme that provides the link between this highly influential social commentary triptych. For filmmakers today, Ophüls’ relevance and influence can be seen in the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, Baz Luhrmann, Terry Gilliam, Todd Haynes and even Stanley Kubrick.
Some might say those famous tracking shots from Kubrick are directly influenced by the work of Ophüls in his three films from 1950-1953 (including La Ronde and The Earrings of Madame de...). It’s a trilogy of sorts, famous for a supremely languid camera style, in which tracking shots are breezily moved through rooms, hallways and staircases with ease.
In Le Plaisir, his camera is at its most expressive in the first segment, Le Masque, which tells the story of a party-goer who gallivants around parties under the facemask of a young gentleman dandy. But when he suffers a heart attack from his exhaustive behaviour, it’s revealed that the gentleman is actually an older man. The notion of identity and the attempt to replace age with youth in the form of a mask is fascinatingly tragic.
Ophüls' choreography of carnival-type movement in the ball is hallucinatory, graceful and controlled, which contrasts so beautifully with the debaucherous chaos of the drunken festivities. Stanley Kubrick was said to have studied Le Masque as inspiration for how to shoot his own ball sequence in the opening of Eyes Wide Shut. Indeed, it's easy to see the connection in style and their mutual fascinations with the sophisticated and the sleazy.
That said, for myself, I don’t revere La Ronde or The Earrings of Madame de... as much as these other filmmakers. For camera elegance, I prefer to watch the early films of Orson Welles or David Lean, and the grandiloquent Soviet films of Mikhail Kalatozov a few years later.
Ophüls’ films are distinctly French, both for the good and the bad. His critique of social aristocracy and his love for lowbrow corset-wearing French prostitutes is delightfully tawdry, but at the same time vaguely snobby. Between these three films, Ophüls’ grand statement is made in Le Masque, the summation of his greatness in about 20 minutes of film. For Ophüls newbies, I'd start here.
Le Plaisir and the other Ophüls films mentioned here are available from the Criterion Collection.