This one’s for you, Criterion fans. It’s a French-language black and white extravaganza from the German-born master of subtle romance and outlandish tracking shots, Max Ophüls. Following up on the director’s previous international smash, the episodic “La Ronde,” “Le Plaisir” is an adaptation of three tales by France’s master of the short story, Guy de Maupassant, all on the theme of pleasure. Story #1 concerns the identity a strange masked dancer; Story #2 features French superstars Danielle Darrieux and Jean Gabin (“Pepe Le Moko,” “Grand Illusion”) and deals with the attractive staff of a cozy, midline brothel attending a first communion; and Story #3 features Simone Simon (1942’s “Cat People”) as a woman who takes precipitous action when her boyfriend wants to end their relationship.
His propensity for elaborate long-takes aside, Max Ophüls remains hugely respected for his work on four terrific Hollywood melodramas made in the late forties, followed by four ambitious and widely acclaimed French works completed in the following decade, including the recently restored cinephile sensation, “The Earrings of Madame de….” Still, on the level of story, “Le Plaisir,” which was cowritten with Jacques Natanson, may not be among his absolute best. The middle segment, which takes up the bulk of the running time, is a beautifully wrought low-impact comedy, but it’s almost too gentle and threatens to wear out its welcome at various points. Even so, the closing segment, about the cataclysmic resolution of an failed romance, feels like an anticlimax – until we get to the actual climax, which includes one of the most unbelievable single shots in film history, outdoing even some similar moments from Alfred Hithcock’s “Vertigo.” What that guy could have done with a Steadicam….