Often depicted as a supplemental aspect used to illuminate a larger story in Hollywood movies, or, worse, as a joke, prostitution rarely receives a human treatment at the heart of a story. With House of Pleasures, aka L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close), French director Bertrand Bonello, tries to illuminate the collateral effects of prostitution on the lives of the women who perform sex acts for money. The results are mixed at worse when he stretches the artiness, but the stumbles are few and brief. The director maintains a respectful affection toward the characters, as the quiet but soulful drama at the center of the story redeems the movie.
Set in late 1800s/early 1900s Paris, when city officials began shutting down so-called houses of tolerance, House of Pleasures ultimately tells a sad story about sad women. The film is as much about the lives of these women as it is about sex and the inner, raw, unromantic workings of a brothel in turn of the century Paris. Focusing on the tragedy of these women’s lives, this film may seem difficult for some to stomach, but Bonello certainly makes the world look pretty with a shallow depth of field focus on his lens and beautiful women in brilliant costumes in his sights.
But behind this facade is a horrific story of one woman, Madeleine (Alice Barnole), reduced to a freak show thanks to a deranged client who disfigures her. As the film unfolds in mostly fractured story form, the mystery of what happened to Madeleine becomes more and more clear, and what seems at first affection by the man is revealed as disdain. By the end, we get the full, horrific effect on the mutilation that has left her with the nickname “The Woman Who Laughs.” The commentary here is not hard to see. However, Bonello stretches it out, indulging in some artsy, surreal stylization that feels a bit heavy-handed, and then offers an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of revenge by the other women that reeks of cheap, almost Hollywood-like catharsis.
These women are barely ever empowered (one is nicknamed “Caca” for a “special talent” and another acts like a robotic doll for a client who takes her from behind). Their degradation in this soul-sucking line of work is the film’s point. When it maintains that focus, House of Pleasures stays true to the heartbreaking futility of these women’s lives. One act of revenge on a demented man will never repair that. When the brothel’s red light goes out at film’s end, the implications are things have only grown worse for women who have chosen such a career path, even beyond the era and into today.
It’s an especially cruel story seeing as these woman are trying to make a career at a time when there was little tolerance for such women, despite the official sanctioning of brothels. As one girl tells Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a new occupant of the house, she should not ever expect to become a woman worth marrying once she starts this job. The drama of hopelessness among the prostitutes is what the film does best at conveying. Bonello uses all the tools of cinema at his disposal to heightened effect. The costumes, the period sets and, on some occasions, the use of split screens to reveal the range of activity within the house. The blasé yet close camaraderie among the women, however, maintains the film’s heartbeat. It’s an intimate portrait and not so much about the carnal acts in the rooms, as it is about the social aspects of those involved: the socializing in the living room with the men, the lives of the women with each other who only have one another to share tears, hugs and kisses together. They seem imprisoned by their job. The only time they seem truly sensual and even happy arrives when they spend a day out on a picnic away from clients.
The lives of these women cross over like small stories woven into a tapestry. Bridging it all together are montage sequences featuring sixties-era music that try to pull these threads together, creating a film that feels much more impressionistic than a straight up story. “The Right to Love You” by the Mighty Hannibal sets the tone during the opening sequence and in a montage later in the film. The film also utilizes the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” during a potent scene, as the women mourn their impending separation after officials order the brothel to shut down. The movie closes with a world-weary sounding “Bad Girl” by Lee Moses. Along with incidental music by Bonello, first known as a musician before becoming a director, it makes for an inspired soundtrack that brings to mind Quentin Tarantino, yet still holds back from being as intrusive as Sophia Coppola’s new wave choices for Marie Antoinette.
In France, this teaser trailer was created in advance of the film’s release featuring “Bad Girl” (fair warning: the images are not NSFW, but it captures the beauty of the cinematography by Bonello’s partner and collaborator Josée Deshaies as well as places the costuming and, of course, the women on full display):
During its run, locally, at that Miami Beach Cinematheque, House of Pleasures will be preceded by a rarely seen 2005 short by Bonello, “Cindy: The Doll is Mine.” Unreleased in the US and only available in poor, butchered quality on YouTube, its a gorgeous little film by its own right. The 15-minute short is a tribute to both photographer Cindy Sherman and the indie rock band Blonde Redhead, whose song “Doll is Mine” features heavily in the unfurling of the film. The remarkable Asia Argento plays both the boyish, brunette photographer and the womanly, platinum blonde model, as both share a cry in their “process” of transference.
House of Pleasures is Unrated, runs 125 minutes and opens in South Florida on Thursday, Jan. 6, at 6:30 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. The same day, at 9 p.m., it opens in Coral Gables, at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema.