"Rue des Plaisirs" is yet another beautifully articulated example of Leconte's ability to recreate not only the appearance of a specific time and place but its very essence, the soulful quality of actually being somewhere, somewhen. Set during the years immediately following the close of World War II, the picture spends much of its time in a typical Parisian brothel of the period, normally an exclusively female domain which, in this instance, has been penetrated by one man known as Little Louis (Patrick Timsit). Himself the son of a prostitute, born in the very same brothel in which he now works, Louis has scarcely known any other life than that which the women have provided for him--he is the son of them all, their protector and mascot, a frumpy, awkward sort who, in something of an ironic twist, has managed to embrace a strangely idealized view of life, love and women. Louis is, in simple terms, a hopeless romantic. No wonder, then, that he is so taken with the arrival of the new girl, Marion (supermodel Laetitia Casta), a weeping willow whose face is the very portrait of a sorrow that Louis has never known.
In the years that follow, Louis becomes Marion's helpmate and guardian, selflessly looking after her well-being and happiness through thick and thin. Even after the brothels are closed by government edict in 1948, Louis stays faithfully by Marion's side, ever giving of himself despite the knowledge that his love cannot and will not be reciprocated. At the same time, he makes it his quest to find her a companion who will love her as selflessly in the open as he does in quiet. When circumstance finally presents a seemingly worthy candidate in the form of young Dimitri (Vincent Elbaz), Louis believes he has finally brought Marion's life full circle. What he does not realize is that the real challenges have only just begun.
Though largely constructed around actual events, "Rue des Plaisirs" is first and foremost a fable of humanity and the enduring power of love. Unlike the more rose-colored Parisian fantasias of "Amélie" and "Moulin Rouge," "Rue des Plaisirs" finds its grail amid the squalid realities of postwar Paris, optimism and resignation walking hand in hand through the portals that fate repeatedly casts before its wayward characters. Those accustomed to the abundance of plot so often prevalent in Leconte's films will not necessarily find it here. Though less formless and overtly realistic than Leconte's last film, "Felix et Lola," which has yet to be released in the United States, "Rue des Plaisirs" follows a similarly character-driven trajectory, but is more an exploration of abstract themes related to human relationships in general than an elucidation of specific events in French history.
Leconte's dazzling rendering of Paris is, to a large degree, a character unto itself--the defining personality from whom the others are forever struggling to free themselves, almost defying the actors to not rise to the challenge. Indeed, the resulting performances surprise as much for their breadth as for the individuals who are able to carry them off. Casta, best known as a Victoria's Secret lingerie model, is the film's most towering revelation. In stark contrast to previous film appearances in such pictures as "Astérix & Obélix vs. Caesar," where her recognizable face was used as little more than window dressing, she is here virtually unrecognizable, totally absorbed by the complexities of character and circumstance.
Though "Rue Des Plaisirs" will not be to everyone's taste--the subject matter and Leconte's take on it are sure to raise a few hackles in some circles--it's impossible to not be impressed on some level by the fluidity of the artistry. For this is a tale not of unreal dreams or nightmares but of daydreams made real in the dead of night--lives determined to illuminate the shadows with nothing but the light of their own hopes.
Starring Patrick Timsit, Laetitia Casta, Vincent Elbaz, Catherine Mouchet, Isabelle Spade, Bérangère Allaux and Patrick Floersheim
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Written by Serge Frydman and Patrice Leconte
Produced by Philippe Carcassonne
A Pathé Image and TF1 Films production
No distributor set. Period drama.
Not yet rated.
Running time: 90 min.