Review | "House of Pleasures"
Bonello symbolizes this careening path to modernity with a startling contemporary soundtrack, that not only represents the characters' transition into the modern era, but also adds a tremulous sexuality that transcends the film's period trappings and feels vibrantly current. Like characters from a Dickens novel, House of Pleasures is populated by whores, madames, and the men who love them, each with their own separate desires and dreams, and each with their own unique stories to tell. There's Madeline (Alice Barnole), who becomes known as "the Woman Who Laughs" after her mouth is sliced into a ghastly grin by a particularly depraved client. There's Pauline, a seemingly innocent 15 year old girl who is new to the trade, and quickly becomes one of the brothel's most popular girls. And then there's Clotilde, who dreams of a better life outside the brothel walls.
All of the girls are held in a kind of indentured servitude, indebted to the brothel and unable to leave. The clientele is a steady stream of wealthy married men and eccentric loners. One is constantly accompanied by a sleek black leopard. Another enjoys taking baths in champagne. Inside the brothel's walls they can be whoever they want, and the outside world disappears. It is both a refuge and a prison, a place of passion and pain, home to both the pleasures and horrors of the night. Here, in this place of decadence and debauchery bodies writhe, dreams are made, and passions collide. It is a dying way of life as seen through the world's oldest profession, that could just as easily be the turn of last century, as an era of prosperity gives way to an era much darker and more austere.
Bonello directs with a rich eye for detail and human intrigue. The film itself is a kind of grotesque circus of excess and debasement but it's also disarmingly human. These women's lives are not about sex. They are not stereotypical "loose" women. Most of them don't even particularly enjoy their job. It is just that - a job. And many are so deep in debt that they have no hope of escape. So they wait, day in and day out, for a knight in shining armor to ride in and rescue them on a white horse. They dream of a wealthy man taking a liking to them, paying off their debts, and marrying them. But their wait is often in vain, for what respectable man wants to marry a whore?
The film digs deep into these women (no pun intended), exploring what drove them to prostitution as well as the circumstances that keep them there. It's an engrossing portrait not only of a turn of the century brothel, but of turn of the century Paris as well. This is the underbelly of Parisian life, far from the glamour and romance we so often see portrayed in books and films. Romance has little to do with what goes on here. It's not a glossed over portrayal of high class courtesans like Moulin Rouge (as wonderful as it may be), but something both unflinching and strangely nostalgic. The characters inhabit a world both familiar and alien, connected to us through common dreams and contemporary music. It's a stark but enchanting dichotomy, as if the two were made for each other. The pairing of period design and modern music seems wholly organic, never gimmicky or contrived. It seems a natural extension of this world where any fantasy can become reality for the right price.
House of Pleasures is at once an elegy for and a celebration of a vanished way of life that is elegantly timeless and thrillingly contemporary. It's engrossing every step of the way. Bonello weaves such a compelling tale that the lack of a central plot never really matters. What matters are the characters, the textures, the feelings, the atmosphere. Everything is so finely crafted and carefully modulated than the film almost exists in a dream state, a wholly immersive and enchanting dark fairy tale about a world that may have never existed outside of paintings, fantasies, and nightmares. But its accuracy is never in question because it doesn't matter. What does matter is that this melancholy and effete netherworld becomes a glittering cesspool of unspoken delights that is strangely identifiable. It is at once repellant and enthralling,exotic and familiar, but never anything short of fascinating.
GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)
HOUSE OF PLEASURES | Directed by Betrand Bonello | Stars Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Jasmine Trinca, Adele Haenel, Alice Barnole, Iliana Zabeth, Noémie Lvovsky | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.