Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures (a.k.a. House of Tolerance and L’Apollonide: souvenirs de la maison close) offers a frustrating but ultimately indelible filmgoing experience. It is, on the one hand, energetically experimental in its mingling of dream and reality, its fin-de-siècle costume drama visuals juxtaposed against ‘60s-era soul and psychedelic music, and its languid but entrancing art house pacing.
Yet, on the other hand, it’s prone to a few late-game moments of on-the-nose metaphor, unlikely scenario, and plot-twisting, which come very close to torpedoing all of that stuff back on that first hand. And so we remain frustrated, but also exhilarated. It is (to quote the late, great Canadian pop band The Odds), a good weird feeling.
A borderline plotless movie which takes place almost entirely within the confines of a Parisian brothel in 1899 and 1900 – the twilight of the age when such establishments were “tolerated” (hence one of the two alternative titles), House of Pleasures explores the motivations, delights, fears and comforts of a group of women engaged in the other “sweet science”. Although primarily an ensemble picture, a few key characters stand out, with their stories meant to be representative of the various possible trajectories for a woman in this line of work.
Among them is Clotilde (played by a truly luminous Céline Sallette) a woman so indebted to the brothel that she will never be able to make enough money to pay her way out of prostitution, and for whom narcotics offer the only affordable escape. We also follow Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a teenager who has come to the brothel seeking a way out of her small town childhood, a chance to earn some freedom via pocket money, and a means to avoid her otherwise certain fate as a factory worker.
Alongside these somewhat routine characterizations we are also offered two tragic victims of circumstance; the two starkest lessons here offered about the dangers that lurk within such a “house of pleasures”. There’s Julie (Jasmine Trinca), an upbeat and playful friend to the women and favourite of the revolving door of clients, who chooses the wrong man and winds up with a disease. And finally, there’s the ostensible main character Madeleine (Alice Barnole), whose disfigurement at the hands of a regular client works as the framing device for the body of the film.
In the minutes after the electrifying opening credit sequence (anachronistically set to The Mighty Hannibal’s ‘60s-era soul masterpiece “The Right To Love You”), we settle into a softly lit, gorgeously designed fin-de-siècle drawing room, wandering with the camera from chamber to chamber, witnessing sex acts both banal and outlandish, overhearing snippets of casual conversation (“I could sleep forever” is often whispered from one woman to another as they pass each other in the hall between appointments), and acres of bodice and flesh. This is a film not at all interested in the eroticism of such a place – indeed, the word “pleasures” in this now apparently official title is deeply ironic – and though we see a lot of it, almost no one appears to be enjoying any of the sex.
The film flirts a bit with the idea of fantasy and desire, but tends to argue that what we sometimes like to pretend today was a kind of permitted sexual free-for-all in the romanticised space of a high class brothel was hard, onerous, and routinely dangerous work for these women, all of whom would really rather have been elsewhere. Apart from the young Pauline – whose excruciating introductory scene involves her slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, removing all of her clothes for an inspection by the local Madame in a full-frame shot – all of the women are exhausted, broken, and desperate for escape. But to where?
Though this film is impeccably acted, gorgeously shot, and astoundingly creative in its off-hand depiction of a quintessentially sensational subject, it cannot be said to be perfect. Indeed, out of nowhere and completely unnecessarily, House of Pleasures introduces a plot twist in the final reel that feels like it was lifted from a Joe Eszterhas script. For such a thing to befall such an otherwise generously intelligent film, a film which brought me to tears twice and had me watching through my hands as often, is to commit a virtual artistic crime.
And yet, to manage to leave the viewer invigorated (if annoyed), and to have engaged him enough that he is simply unable to shake the imagery, the performances, and the complex of theme and didacticism that undergirds the film… to be able to do all of that is to make a very good movie, despite any unfortunate missteps. Plus, the endlessly creative and thought-provoking use of a bass-forward mix of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” in a key scene is enough to invite film school scrutiny of this picture for years to come.
DVD extras are thin on the ground, but include a brief doc on casting all of the gorgeous, talented, and deeply committed actors who populate this House of Tolerance.