Friday, November 25, 2011

Bertrand Bonello's HOUSE OF PLEASURES takes us to a Parisian brothel circa 1900

So far as bordello movies go, set- and costume-wise, at least, HOUSE OF PLEASURES  (L'Apollonide - Souvenirs de la maison close), the new one by Bertrand Bonello is up there with the best (i.e. Louis Malle's Pretty Baby or Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side). What a non-stop joy for the eyes is this extravagantly beautiful, visually stunning but exceedingly depressing look at day-to-day life in a turn-of-the-century brothel.

M. Bonello, shown at left, has certainly outdone himself in terms of sets, costumes and hair styles (the last are credited to Ferouz Zaafour and Milou Sanner). I can't imagine a more stunning combina-tion of production values that seem to be quite in keeping with the time (right down to the women checking each other's hair for lice). The details of the daily grind of the demi-monde shown here seem real and really appalling, once you get past the surface beauty -- of which there is plenty. The act-resses on view, reflecting perhaps both a nod to present-day inclusion and the taste of men a-century-plus-a-decade past, are well chosen for beauty and variety (and acting ability, too). Though I suppose that all prostitutes need to be very good actresses. Or actors.

Centering on half a dozen of the girls and their sensible, hard-nosed madam (a fine Noémie Lvovsky, at right) who has children to support, the movie takes us through the preparations, the evening's work, the following morning, a visit from the doctor to check on the health of the girls, and even the few moments of quiet conversation between them, during which, at times, hopes and wishes are expressed.

Bonello and his cinematographer (Josée Deshaies) capture some painterly composiitons, as above, and their roving camera catches these girls and women -- the eldest is now 28 -- in moments of occasional delight as well as repose.

Early on, there occurs a ferocious act of violence by a member of the clientele against one of these women (a fine debut by Alice Barnole, shown above, center), rendering her useless for this line of work -- except when something kinky or bizarre is requested. This is the movie's signal "event," made more so by the fact that the filmmaker comes back at least once too often to show us how it happened (Trust us, Bertrand: We're going to remember this slashing without your repetition.)

While Bonello also enjoys an occasional split screen, into quarters or thirds (which makes us feel we are everywhere at once but does not break the mood), unfortunately, he is also given to the sudden inclusion of loud, jarring contemporary music -- which drags the movie kicking and screaming into the 21st century. This was terribly ill-advised; it works correctly only once, at the finale, when the director whisks us into present day. Now, the music is more than appropriate, yet his earlier forays have already destroyed any freshness that might suddenly be found in this technique. Which is too bad, for the film's finish might have been even more thought-provoking and moving.

Politics and economics are ever-present, as the girls plan for the day when they will have paid off their "debt" to the madam (though it is intimated that this day will never quite arrive, for the girls appear to be little more than indentured servants). And when one of them -- the lovely Jasmine Trinca of The Best of Youth, Piano Solo (click and scroll down), and Crime Novel -- contracts a deadly (at the time) STD, our depression hits its nadir.

And just when you're ready to cry, "Ah, Capitalism at work once again!" the madam must beg one of her "sponsors" for help in even keeping her house open. All these women -- including the oldest, beautifully played by Céline Sallette, below -- live at the behest of men, and the film is feminist without ever coming close to pushing things.

For all its "downer" qualities and the filmmaker's few missteps, I am pleased to have seen this film. From now on, when someone says "bordello movie," it's very likely to be House of Pleasures that first flashes to mind. From IFC, it opens today, Friday, November 25, in New York City at the IFC Center.  Concurrently it's available On-Demand from your local TV reception provider, and can also be seen via Sundance Now.

Photos are from the film itself or from its production, 
except that of M. Bonello, which is by Jerod Harris

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