Saturday, March 31, 2012

House Of Pleasures (L'Apollonide - Souvenirs De La Maison Close)

The Horrors, Tragedies And Banalities Of Sex And Commerce

A scene from "House Of Pleasures", directed by Bertrand Bonello. 
IFC Films


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, March 31
, 2012

With its literal v
isual representations of descriptive sexual acts and imaginative canvas of thought, the ironically-titled "House Of Pleasures", which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a haunting, macabre chronicle of the last years of a French bordello. 

Bertrand Bonello's drama is an absorbing, all-encompassing look at several women as they dissect sexual acts, converse with each other about the nobility of those acts or lack thereof, and the business of sex.  The Madame of the house knows that the society's changing mores, strict laws, economy and public health interests mean the whorehouse she runs is on its last legs.  Each of the articulate, sophisticated women who ply their trade is more or less an indentured servant, poor, and paying off debts by selling their bodies to aristocratic and powerful rich men with "interesting" peccadilloes.

Elegant, beautiful and decorous, "House Of Pleasures" is an intelligent conversation piece among a sisterhood, multi-dimensional in its detailed look at every facet of what a woman has to endure when having sex.  Some of the women view sex as an expression of love.  Others look at it as pain.  Some see it as both.  Others act.  "Fake it," one says to a young voluptuous newcomer who has nearly the same milky-white complexion as Emily Browning's title character in "Sleeping Beauty", a similar but static film by comparison.  When the newcomer asks why, the simple response is, "that's what everyone does here."

The men of "House Of Pleasures" are always prodding, prying, plying and penetrating the women.  There's little introspection and few types of men in between extremes.  If the men are not doctors intruding on the opposite sex with speculums, they are sadomasochistic freak animals whose deceptions and intentions are bloody.  Yet I don't believe Mr. Bonello indicts them.  (The bordello women mock the men in one of the film's few light-hearted occasions.)  Mr. Bonello doesn't pity the women he displays.  He allows us to see them breathe, exhale and be themselves outside of their night jobs.  There's tension between them, but at the end of the day they're all in the same boat, sinking or swimming with the tide in a business where age can spell the end of a difficult but highly lucrative livelihood.

"House Of Pleasures" effectively melds the women's differing psychosexual outlooks in an artsy, intimate and surprisingly discreet manner.  The film is claustrophobic, winding labyrinth-like from one character's vision to another's.  Mysterious, puzzling, provocative and daring, "House Of Pleasures" is nothing if not unpredictable and suspenseful.  I was often on edge while watching and wondering where this film would take me, and it takes you down corridors and chambers of the mind in these women's psyches that none of the film's largely plastic men could ever hope to understand.  In "House Of Pleasures", a thinking person's sophisticated sex fantasy, women bare their clothes and their minds in an unexpurgated way.

One of the most fascinating, if oddly beguiling aspects of "House Of Pleasures" is the specter of exactly where and in whose mind it may occur in.  Sure, the film starts in 1899 but is that 1899 presented as a romantic memory or as an interpretation viewed from the present day?  For example, relatively modern-day music (The Moody Blues' "Nights In White Satin") plays over a 1900s scene, one well-choreographed to the song.  A question I inevitably asked myself: is the film taking place in the mind of someone in the present?  Is it nostalgia?  A meditation?  "House Of Pleasures" feels like a documentary as it evolves into a expose on double standards.  The men are as destitute in their morals as the women -- in fact more so -- but at least the latter aren't cheating themselves or any spouses they may have.  The film exercises a heroic or vaunted notion of whore pride, but perhaps fails to note that the men in "House Of Pleasures" are the biggest whores on parade.

Amidst its carnival of carnality "House Of Pleasures" casts its lot with central figure Madeleine, horribly disfigured by a john early during 1899.  Nicknamed "The Jewess", Madeleine has nightmares about a man who fills her entirely with his bodily fluids.  She proceeds to vividly and eloquently describe how this experience affects her, and how she completely surrenders to it.  Some of the film's episodes border on surreal, and the director who teases at times, goes all the way to fearlessly represent a woman's fantasies and complex desires.  It's a brave move, and given what we see throughout this movie -- including a live black panther stroked by a man who repeatedly soothingly utters the name designer Vuitton -- rewarding and utterly justified.  On occasion however, Mr. Bonello's film emits an air of self-satisfaction, its scenery rich, velvety and lavish. 

For all its meticulous coverage inside of a musty, sensual palace of bodies and sexual tastes "House Of Pleasures" is a skin-deep experience, but one that is jarring and occasionally hard to watch.  There is sex that is sexy, and much sex that is not.  As the film unfolds you get a sense that sex was more colorful, joyful and extravagant 100 years ago.  When juxtaposed against the harsh, every-woman-for-herself lights of today, the sex trade back then, for all its ups and many downs, seems downright romantic.

With: Alice Barnole, Iliana Zabeth, Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Adele Haenel, Jasmine Trica, Noémie Lvovsky, Louis-Do le Lencquesaing, Esther Garrel, Xavier Beauvois, Judith Lou Levy, Pauline Jacquard, Joanna Grudzinska.

"House Of Pleasures" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  It contains strong sexual content, sensuality, full frontal male and female nudity, brief scenes of bloody, graphic violence, explicit language and drug use.  The film is in the French language with English language subtitles.  The film's running time is two hours and six minutes.

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