A timeless romance set in a very specific period, Patrice Leconte’s “Rue des Plaisirs” is a bittersweet three-character drama that drinks deep at the well of poetic realism and post-war atmosphere. Tale of a stubby fellow raised in a brothel, who will stop at nothing to assure the happiness of the prostitute he loves to the limits of platonic fervor, is drenched in nicely observed details but never soars as high as helmer’s “The Girl on the Bridge” or “The Widow of Saint-Pierre.” This lovingly made but verging-on-slight venture from the prolific Leconte (who already has another film in the can) will require concerted coaxing to make much of a market dent.
Bulk of pic proper, bookended by two pastoral scenes freighted with hidden meaning, illustrates the reminiscences of two prostitutes (Catherine Mouchet, Isabelle Spade) on a Paris street one rainy night in the early ’50s. They tell a younger hooker the story of the only prostie they ever knew who “made something of her life.” Veterans of a lively brothel called the Oriental Palace — which, like all other French houses of ill repute, was closed by government decree in 1948 — the women wax nostalgic about the good old days.
Their description in flashback of Marion (Laetitia Casta), the prostitute who managed to move beyond making her living horizontally, begins with the story of Little Louis (Patrick Timsit), who was born and raised in the Oriental Palace. Fussed over by his dozens of “moms,” Little Louis grew up to handle all the non-flesh-related chores with cheerful, asexual devotion.
On the day during WWII that Marion joined the “staff,” Little Louis fell in love and resolved to devote himself to her happiness. There is more than a shade of “Cyrano” in the form Louis’ devotion takes.
As a professional whore, Marion enjoys Louis’ thoughtful attention — comforting her during air raids, lacing her into her corset, rubbing her shoulders, etc. — but never realizes the depth of his feelings for her. Small, a little bit childish and nothing to look at, Louis knows he’s not “good” enough for Marion, but fills her world-weary head with positive notions of her rosy future with the right guy. When circumstances seem to point to dashing-if-penniless Dimitri (Vincent Elbaz), Little Louis takes exceptional measures to make sure the two become lovers under romantic circumstances. Marion is soon working overtime on her back to support them both. Dimitri is nuts about Marion but is given to gambling and has a shady past in the black market.
When all the brothels are forced to close, Louis leaves the only home he has ever known and takes up a dodgy life with Marion and Dimitri, forming an odd but symbiotic triangle.
Stylish pic is melancholy and touching but never sordid. Like a knight protecting his lady, Louis is fulfilled by the sight of Marion’s pleasure in Dimitri’s company. But he wonders if he picked the right Mr. Right when giving fate a decisive nudge.
Production designer Ivan Maussion, in his 18th collaboration with Leconte, has fashioned an idealized yet faintly menacing Paris plucked from cabaret songs and the lore of street toughs. Eduardo Serra’s lighting — filtered through lots of fog and rain — adds immeasurably to the mood, and Leconte, as always, frames his own widescreen shots with thoughtful flair. Big bold score is a nifty fit.
Casta fans may be surprised by her initially glum perf. The actress, who cut her long tresses and dyed them black for the role, gives a like-it-or-hate-it turn, complete with her own big band vocals on a musical number. Timsit endows his yearning third wheel with genuine pathos: Once he bites off more than he can eschew, Timsit’s self-made heartache is palpable and the legacy of his meddling has a sad beauty all its own. As the colorful Dimitri, Elbaz is dashing, but not quite effortlessly enough.