House of Pleasures (2011, Bertrand Bonello)

[Some images in this post are NSFW.]

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

House of Pleasures emerged from Cannes as a slagged-off erotic tone poem that many derided as the uncouth indulgence of its director, Bertrand Bonello. Seductive and sexually charged as it is, though, this film deserves better. It follows the comings and goings of the women in an upscale brothel in Paris in the last year of the nineteeth century. Though it reaches several points of emotional climax and catastrophic near-tragedy, it’s mostly a calm investigation of a dying world — the bordello closes at the end of the picture — that’s intended as a sumptuous intrusion upon an unfamiliar setting, into which we compel ourselves to live and think as these women for two hours. The conclusions are emotionally crushing, horrible, luminous, really as variant and limitness as the personalities of the captivatingly well-drawn characters therein. Without the aid of, say, a full-season TV show’s worth of character development, everyone we meet in the film is distinctive, sympathetic, identifiably real and three-dimensional.

Bonello’s script, which was surprisingly not embellished with improvisation by the cast, is meticulously researched and nearly as wonderfully instinctive as his direction. As cinema, this is quite astonishingly involving; not only do the characters seem real, the location itself, L’Apollonide, becomes geographically and visually second-nature to us. Seldom has a film seemed so lofty and mildly abstract yet come to approach so closely a sense of reality, if perhaps in the sense of a dream. But Bonello’s art and craft here are secondary to the serious, deeply complex work of production designer Alain Guffroy and costumer Anaïs Romand — thanks to whom the sense of time and place is sometimes overpowering even when the film intentionally undercuts it — but also, much more obviously, to the actors.

The performances are uniformly impressive, and constitute one of the finest ensemble collectives in this decade’s cinema. Noémie Lvovsky is commanding as Marie-France, operator of the house of tolerance, who runs a tough-minded brood but is appreciably sentimental about her occupation — she does not wish to cease. Céline Sallette’s Clotilde defines the suffering, illness, fear, dread that cloud over these lives. No face is more haunting than Alice Barnole, “the One Who Laughs,” who has been permanently disfigured by a client, and none is more hopeful and naive than Iliana Zabeth as newcomer Pauline, whose entrance and departure from the fold are a marked instance of the film’s rhythmic ebbing and flowing, its appreciation of the change and passage of time. These are just four of many, all complex, fully drawn, stunningly well-acted.

Much of the criticism afforded this picture at Cannes was probably due to a particular arty indulgence Bonello makes late in the picture. Though I was swept up and deeply touched by the film, I must agree that this is a misstep. House of Pleasures thuds to the ground when it tries to reintroduce some sort of Unforgiven-style vengeance for the back story of Madeleine, “the One Who Laughs,” and I could have gone my entire life without seeing either that knife through her cheek or the dunderheaded, overly literal, much-criticized conclusion involving, uh, tears of semen. It’s a dumb idea that doesn’t belong here, but if you’re warned of it beforehand, you’re better able to appreciate the beauty of what the film does consistently achieve.

That is, at bottom, a complex, sumptuous slice of life with a number of delicious aesthetic stunts, so many of which work beautifully it’s easy to forgive the ones that don’t. Split-screen effects give the sense of both harmonic synchronicity and cruel divide between the inner lives being led, and disturb with the nonchalant collision of surveillance-video immediacy with the knee-deep secrets, shared and private, occupying the whole of the house. One outrageous stunt that works marvelously is a climactic dance scene with the anachronistic backdrop of “Nights in White Satin” — a song I’ve never liked that I suddenly found myself responding to in this context — and what’s thrilling is that Bonello makes sure we know it’s emitting from a phonograph and not from the film’s own soundtrack, a delightfully surreal choice that renders all the stronger the emotional intensity of the scene, and of the film as a whole.

As much as it therefore — particularly when doubled with its final scene — may seem like a dreamlike hypothetical constructed of many elements, House of Pleasures simply wouldn’t work without its intoxicating but often horrifying realism. The constant threat of violence and disease runs rampant underneath the detached decadence of the setting, but much more interesting is the film’s welcome resistance to either demonize or glorify the bordello or the relevant behavior and work of the women therein. This world is not put up to be questioned, challenged or celebrated; it simply “is,” and Bonello’s interest is obviously in the feelings of the women in the house toward what they do, toward their clients, toward their lives, not of the viewer’s feelings toward the same things.

Eroticism is here if you’re seeking that but you’ll find it integrated carefully with a narrative designed mostly to sell the idea of these women as individuals with a common sense of duty and compassion for one another, and the feminist reality that even an independent woman of the period depicted was beholden to the whims of the system. But the conclusion tantalizingly demands to know whether these women would really have it better now in a contradictory, unfair world that is still fascinated by female sexuality but repulsed and shamed by that fascination, and its answer is hardly ambiguous. For a film that comes to such unpleasant conclusions, this is a surprisingly absorbing and beautiful experience.

[Note on title: I’m tempted to refer to this film under its original title, L’Apollonide, because the confusion between the two English titles, this one and House of Tolerance, is so annoying. However, I’m using the DVD release by IFC and the New York Times review as a tie-breaker. The librarian in me is hoping for as little of this sort of middling controversy in the future as possible!]

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