Friday, November 25, 2011

House of Pleasures

Like Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (due out next Friday), Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures is a feminist film about prostitution with the languorous, trapped-in-amber feel of an ominously fractured fairy tale. But where Leigh’s alienated stranger in a strange land is almost entirely defined and ultimately engulfed by the male gaze, Bonello offers up the comforts and pleasures of female friendship as a response to the cold menace of unchecked male domination.

Except on the rare occasions that their madam (Noémie Lvovsky) or clients take them out, the dozen or so prostitutes in House of Pleasures are not allowed to leave the well-appointed Parisian brothel where they work, during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. And we stay right there with them, the camera hugging close to study their faces or capture the intimate groupings they fall in and out of all day and night. Having sex in the private rooms upstairs, mingling with the johns in the ground-floor parlor in a nightly cocktail party, or banding together to sleep, eat, and prepare for work from the very early morning to the late afternoon, they live out a kind of parody of bourgeois domesticity in which nothing is as it seems except their mutual love and support.

A muted sense of menace enters the house every night as the men come back, providing an uneasy counterpoint to the soul-killing tedium of the goings-on. (There’s plenty of fucking but very little heat here, since the sex, which is mostly either robotic or thoroughly fetishized or both, is presented from the women’s workmanlike point of view.)

That steady thrum of dread rises to an almost unbearable pitch when the film circles obsessively back to a story introduced in the opening scene, which it revisits with an insistence that ultimately feels voyeuristic. Hearing a vivid nightmare that the tragically sensitive Madeleine (Alice Barnole) recounts once too often and then seeing it acted out, in a literal-minded and lingering shot, drains the central image of its original power, and seeing Madeleine get horribly disfigured long after we’ve figured out what happened to her feels exploitative.

But the film generally uses repetition thoughtfully, reprising scenes with enough variation to convey new information and enough similarity to drive home the excruciatingly slow drip of passing time in the women’s tightly circumscribed existence. When three- and four-way split screens show what’s going on in different parts of the house, the multiple images underscore the numbing familiarity of the activities shown, and the control the women have to cede over their own bodies when they’re with their clients is echoed in the humiliatingly public gynecological exams they submit to every month and the slave-at-auction-style examination of a prospective new employee by the madam.

A present-day coda that imagines where one of the women might be if she were alive today and the use of contemporary songs in two key scenes serve as none-too-subtle reminders that the prison these women are trapped in hardly disappeared with the 20th century. But on the whole, House of Pleasures is refreshingly undidactic, a bluesy portrait of a vanished subculture that seems less interested in historical accuracy than in emotional authenticity.

Written for The L Magazine


  1. What a powerful review. I will watch this movie based on this review. How ironic that women brought together and housed like animals or slaves find solidarity among themselves. The kink we ache to see more in our modern world. After all, the male gaze is as powerful as ever witness the political field. It is also always a mystery that the conduit of the oppression is another woman, like the madame.

  2. Thanks, Leonila. It's always interesting to me, too, to think about the role female madams play in institutionalized prostitution.

    Another thing I liked about this movie was that it showed enough of the madam's own struggles and her (and her young children's) relationship with the women who worked for her that you could see her as trapped, too, a widow with two kids to raise and not a lot of ways she could legitimately earn money. She had been a prostitute herself when she was young, you gathered -- probably one who had gotten a much older client to pay off her debts and marry her -- so I guess this was a world she knew and felt comfortable in, and she prided herself on providing a house that was safe and clean, though of course she couldn't protect her "girls" from misogynistic violence or STDs, and that business of making it a prison really was chilling.

    In the end, it felt to me like the drug situation now -- the people doing the dealing are certainly responsible for their own actions, and the higher you go up that chain the more culpable they seem, but the real problem seems to me to be the strong demand for the drugs around the world -- probably especially in this country-- and all the money that's waiting to pay to supply that demand. In any capitalist system, I think you'll find someone desperate or hopeless or young and self-deluded enough or whatever to fill that well-funded a need, even if it means risking their lives or compromising their values. To me, it's just human nature.