Sunday, November 16, 2008

Curtain rising on another classic at the UW Cinematheque, Le Plaisir by Max Ophuls

Curtain Rising on Another Classic at the Cinematheque
I love the UW Cinematheque, and last night we saw another classic, Le Plaisir by Max Ophuls. That gorgeous curtain rose creakily ("We're going to have that fixed," said Tom Yoshikami, who introduced the showing).

The silver screen came alive, and we were transported to a magical world of sparkling black and white imagery (a print flown in from France) and fluid cinematography that seemed all the more amazing for having been filmed in 1952. No wonder that filmmakers as different as Todd Haynes (who introduces the Criterion DVD) and Martin Scorsese revere Ophuls, one of the great masters of the tracking shot.

The action begins with a tour de force of camera movement and film editing, as we follow a strange masked figure and what seems like all of 19th century Paris streaming through the city streets to a ballroom filled with revelers, who are joined by the mysterious masked man, who throws himself into the dance with demonic energy until he finally collapses.

The film is made up of three Guy de Maupassant stories beautifully reinterpreted by Ophuls at the height of his powers. I usually don't like anthology movies. Their parts often make an awkward fit that doesn't hang together. Here it works -- partly because there's one longer story in the middle that's framed by two shorter stories, and all three are complementary in theme and tone.

I could go on and on, but I'll defer to this essay about Le Plaisir by Jamie S. Rich. You'll also find a number of stills at the link. But stills alone can't capture the tempo and movement of the film, or some of the grace notes it contains -- a transcendent coming together of the sacred and the profane in an old Norman country church, and an unexpected stop to gather flowers in a meadow that could have been photographed in paradise itself.

There's a wry wisdom, a tone both lyrical and ironic, in Ophuls' take on life and lust, love and loss. I can't help but think that it influenced two of my favorite directors in two of my favorite movies made just a few years later -- Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and Truffaut's Jules and Jim. It was a great film experience, one that remains as vivid in my mind the day after, unlike so many movies that start fading away the minute you leave the theater.

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