LITTLE ROCK Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures, nominally a look inside a slowly down-sliding Parisian brothel at the turn of the 20th century, is probably not what you think it is. That is to say, it’s not the sort of titillating soft-core come-on its new English title (it was originally called House of Tolerance) implies.
Instead, it’s a highly atmospheric, deeply cinematic series of images focusing on the daily routines of the brothel’s indentured denizens - a deeply unsexy (yet still sensual), practically plotless film that feels more like some of the more formal work of Peter Greenaway than something you’d come across on Cinemax at 1 a.m. If you’ve seen Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1998 film Flowers of Shanghai, you have some idea what Bonello means to get at.
And it’s not merely the elegant banality of the lives of upscale sex workers, who, despite the sumptuousness of their surroundings and the pedigrees of their upscale clients, are only slightly better off than their street walking sisters. Abuse is a given and violence is probable - and more careers end in disappointment (or disfigurement) than marriage proposals. (Though certain illusions are maintained - and dashed.)
Bonello has a way with beautifully discomfiting images and juxtaposition of the everyday rituals of the brothels (a lot of time is allocated to hygiene) with the gilded grandeur of the Belle Epoque furnishings - the movie drips with silk and velvet; you can very nearly smell the leather and perfume, taste the champagne.
But there’s another story in the hollow eyes of the assembled courtesans, the palpable air of hopelessness that pervades this pretty, airless film.
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Noemie Lvovsky, Alice Barnole, Hafsia Herzi, Celine Sallette, Jasmine Trinca, Adele Haenel, Iliana Zabeth
MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 12/23/2011
Print Headline: House of Pleasures