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'House Of Pleasures': A Lush Portrait Of A Bordello

Bonello's film portrays life in a Paris brothel, defined by the distress and hopelessness of the women who work there.
IFC Films
Bonello's film portrays life in a Paris brothel, defined by the distress and hopelessness of the women who work there.

Despite its title, Bertrand Bonello's House of Pleasures is anything but a come-hither film. Unfolding almost entirely within the perfumed, pillowy cocoon of a Paris brothel at the turn of the 20th century, the film flits from the innocent to the jaded — and from attraction to revulsion — with an ease that has nothing to do with salaciousness. Any hopes of a voyeuristic frisson are soon dashed: Here, watching prostitutes at work (and at rest, and at play) is about as erotic as watching plumbers unstop a drain.

Which is not to say the film lacks sensuality; quite the reverse. While the director focuses on the girls' hygiene, work schedules and medical checkups (the poor things are forever being asked to spread their thighs), the costume and lighting departments pull out all the stops. Velvet and brocade, leather and lace drape every scene, the ripe opulence of the furnishings and the jewel-toned peignoirs framing abundant, uncorseted nudity. Generous hips and lively bosoms abound, the liberation of female flesh from constricting undergarments pleasing the clients and reminding us that its owners are far from liberated. This is, after all, a gilded prison, albeit one whose inmates seem particularly well-fed.

That much is clear as the women fret over their declining beauty and escalating debts, most of them owed to Madame (Noemie Lvovsky), a maternal businesswoman facing rent increases and aging regulars. Her ladies are luscious and her clients contented — she can provide boys on request — but the downside is still disease and danger, and the film shies away from neither.

In fact, there's something undeniably creepy in the director's obsession with The Woman Who Laughs (Alice Barnole), the horribly disfigured victim of a vicious customer. Returning again and again to her Joker smile, Bonello seems crassly determined to re-purpose her scars as symbols of all female suffering.

Consoled by opium and champagne — but mostly by one another — the occupants of the house are sorrowful, spaced-out eye candy. Even the newest recruit, a 16-year-old virgin seeking financial independence, soon catches on to her sisters' languid hopelessness.

But if the joy of sex is denied them, and us, the pleasures of photography are a fine substitute as Josee Deshaies' gorgeous images wash across the screen. Ornate public rooms give way to the peeling walls of the women's private quarters, and a day out in the countryside might have been painted by Renoir.

Trusting more to atmosphere than to plot, House of Pleasures offers a decadent portrait of the end of an era. Within its walls, fiction and reality, old and young, master and servant coexist; and if the Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin seems oddly perfect for the soundtrack, maybe it's because the song, like the film, is a nightmare disguised as a dream.

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Jeannette Catsoulis
A Scottish expat who believes that most problems can be solved by a single malt and a Swedish masseur, Jeannette Catsoulis found her film-writing career kick-started when an arts editor discovered she was the only person at his dinner table who knew who Ed Wood was.