Part Of The Picture: The Pursuit of Pleasure

Posted on September 24, 2010



SEP 25, 2010 – THE OPENING IS AS DIRECT A statement of intent as you could possibly get. “Based on three stories by Guy de Maupassant,” the titles announce, and over a black screen, an equivalent of the author’s voice narrates, “Many attempts have been made to depict three of my tales. I thought it would be simpler to relate them myself. I’ve always loved the night, the darkness. I’m so happy to be talking in the dark as if I were beside you…” Hence, it appears, the disembodied voice over on-screen darkness. The three stories are linked by the titular emotion, pleasure. In the first story, a man seeks pleasure in the company of younger women. The second story is about prostitutes, women whose purpose is to provide pleasure. And in the third, a man finds life’s comforts, the font of pleasure, through a woman he earlier rejected.

Leading into the first of these stories, the voice continues, “You can imagine my anxiety because these are old tales for your modern times. But we’ll see. Here is the first story. One night there was a ball at the Palais de la Danse…” And the camera begins its dance. The first lights come up on screen, in the shape of signage advertising the ball. The camera glides smoothly to the entrance of the great hall, in front of which a man calls out to passers by, “Come on, ladies and gentlemen. Dance and be merry.” The author-narrator continues to lay out the scenario, very much as he would in his books, even though these scenarios are exploding visually right in front of our eyes. “The lure of the orchestra, exploding like a storm, crashed through walls and roofs, engulfing all. The crowd flooded in like water bursting a dam. Regulars from all over Paris, regardless of class, came for rollicking fun and debauchery.”

We see these crowds inside the hall, and the voice of Guy de Maupassant continues to describe them for us. “There were workers, pimps and, above all, girls. From rough cotton to the finest cambric. Rich old women chasing their youth, and poor young girls desperate to have fun and entice big spenders. Elegant suits after young flesh or wilted but still fragrant blooms prowled the excited crowd, searching and hunting.” After the stage has been set, we move to the exterior, as a well-dressed man races towards the ball. Even the way he moves appears to mimic dancing, with mincing steps and bouncing shoulders. He runs up the flight of stairs to the entrance, then up a second flight of stairs to the ballroom, pushing past scores of women, stuffing his cravat and cane into the hands of the nearest attendant. He seems to be in an unimaginable hurry.

But why? That will be revealed soon, but for now, let’s contend with the author-narrator’s description of the man who just took centrestage. “From the crowd a man emerged, thin and dressed like a young dandy. He looked like a waxwork, a caricature of a fashion designer’s dream.” A voice amidst the crowd alerts us to this gent’s name. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the great dancer Monsieur Grandval.” But the author-narrator isn’t enamoured. In the most civilised of tones, he sneers, “His dancing was convincing but clumsy. He seemed rusty trying to imitate the others. He seemed lost – as graceless as a terrier amongst greyhounds.” The woman closest to the man says, “You’re a good dancer.” He asks for her name. “Frimousse,” she replies. “And you?” He simply says, “You’re gorgeous.” And he falls into a faint. At last, we will see why he’s in such a hurry, as if each passing moment were his very last.

Le Plaisir (1952, French). Directed by Max Ophüls. Starring Claude Dauphin, Gaby Morlay, Madeleine Renaud.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign