Max Ophüls is a fantastic filmmaker who is best remembered for his very distinctive tracking shots, where the camera kind of glides through the interior sets. He was a major influence on American filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Haynes.
Although he made many films from the 1930s onwards, his last seven movies are both the best known and most distinctive. Ophüls worked in France and Germany throughout the 1930s and early 40s, leaving during the Nazi occupation of France. Although he struggled in Hollywood, he had some support from Preston Sturges, who was a great admirer of his work.
Ophüls’s melodramas are his most well remembered, but during his US period he also made a couple of quite remarkable film noirs, The Reckless Moment being the best of these.
Le Plaisir is based on three short stories by Guy de Maupassant, and fits into his melodrama category. Two are very short tales, and the third, longer story is the basis for most of the film. It’s an early example of an anthology film, a genre that has always been weirdly popular in Europe, especially in the 1940s and early 1950s (for example, many of Rossellini’s early films). Usually anthology films are also genre films, so Le Plaisir is fairly unique, as was Ophüls’s earlier film, Le Ronde.
The first segment is about a masked dandy who goes to a dance hall and faints, after which they find out that underneath the mask he is an old man. The second is about a brothel madam who takes her girls out to her village to attend the first communion of her niece, leaving her customers baffled. In the final segment, there is a fairly standard love story between a painter and his model that goes awry. The cast includes a number of famous French actors of the time, such as Simone Simon and Jean Gabin. Gabin had begun a major film career in the 1930s, but there was a pause while he fought in de Gaulle’s army. Le Plaisir was one of his earliest post-war comeback films—within a couple of years he was back on centre stage as a leading man in crime films. He’s always good even in this fairly small part.
As always with Ophüls’s films, the stories are less important than the emotional content, which is conveyed mostly by the visual style. In each segment his signature style comes through—everything is super smooth. His impact on Douglas Sirk is obvious, the two had similar backgrounds and careers and were clearly kindred spirits, including their love for a good tracking shot. James Mason even wrote a poem about Ophüls’s love of the tracking shot.
The package includes the film on Blu-Ray and DVD, with quite an array of features, such as an interview with his son Marcel Ophüls, also a well-respected filmmaker (The Sorrow and the Pity), a 54-minute making-of documentary with some of the surviving people who worked on the movie, and a featurette about the restoration. There’s also a booklet with new writing by Alexander Jacoby and Philippe Roger.