Rating: 4 out of 5
There’s rarely a film that weaves the most awful stench of man’s degrading sexual fantasies and crippling feminine doctrines and delusions in such a cinematic visual grandeur – both in a frightening and gripping spectacle.
Writer-director Bertrand Bonello ‘House of Pleasures’ resides in the colourful time-period of “Moulin Rouge!” and fringes on New French Extremism, a term coined for the genre of French transgressive films, where no topic is ever taboo and no subjects unexplored.
This poetically slow-paced film gives us full access into the daily lives of the people behind the walls of L'Apollonide, a Parisian brothel (circa 1900) where the façade of both decorative and human variety is explored and the latter exploited. With the exception of a Garcia y Mencia-esque picnic down the riverbank, the story is confined to the settings found within the brothel --as seen through the eyes of its residents.
From the high-end courtesans’ daily preparations and mingling – in elegant finesse -- with their aristocratic male clients, to their Madame working on the brothel’s financing and conducting interviews of potential girls, almost everything is meticulously scrutinized from the outside in. And Bonello wasted no time in introducing the harsher bits of its reality.
'House of Pleasures' is so elegant and vivid that its almost like a Baroque painting.
Courtesan Madeline (Alice Barnole) exposed this reality early in the film with a wooden performance in bed with a client. Her dashing middle-aged client reeks of unearned wealth and gifts her an emerald ring prior to the act -- a reminder that hers is a job and his is an after-work activity.
With corsets tightened to its very eyelet and hair and makeup done to perfection, most of these girls are waiting to realize their dream of freedom by marrying a rich client. This rarity -- more so a tainted illusion -- drives the girls with alluring obsession: their bearing constantly poised and classed in flawless nobleness while their hope grows thinner with each passing intercourse.
The dozen or so courtesans are led (and owned) by Madame Marie-France (Noémi Lvovsky), who runs the mansion in a soft maternal approach with an acute business sense. Though two of her free roaming children and pet panther live on the premises, her courtesans are the ones she looks after in a quiet loving embrace.
But beyond the velvet curtains and expensive dresses, the morality of these girls is brutally threatened as often as the amount of champagne they sip.
We see the girls objectified in almost every possible way — prodded, posed, made to dress up and speak pseudo-Japanese, or to act like dolls. Perhaps the most tragic of them all is Madeline – later given the moniker “the woman who laughs”— who had the sides of her mouth sliced ala The Joker in a sadistic session with an insensible client. She is soon relegated to menial in-house duties, but plays and important role as she treads through the lives of the girls.
Bertrand Bonello ‘House of Pleasures’ transports you into 19th century Paris' grand maisons through the eyes of its residents.
Bonello seems bent on putting away the prostitution label and pornographic stigma as soon as he could; allowing the viewers to focus more on the ethereal. However, he does this in such a dispassionate fashion that it seems that he neither condones nor condemns their exploitation.
‘House of Pleasures’ may seem like a dirty look into the brutal world of prostitution, but Bonello has layered this with a surreal blend of irrelevance and eccentricity. Whether it was Madeline’s nightly dream of sperms crying or a soundtrack filled with contemporary music (as seen in a slow dance sequence backed by the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin”), all we can see is that it was done intelligently.
This is a film about slavery and although the courtesans own next to nothing – even themselves —they at least have each other.
What the film is not however, is an erotic stimulant. It really is a Baroque-style painting that comes to life with just enough humanized horror and blues to make it mesmerizing. It tips over the cliff of tasteful and, by the end of the film, into the abyss of artistry.