Sex Workers Circa 1900: Bertrand Bonello's House of Pleasures Reviewed
Early on in Bertrand Bonello's haunting, darkly gorgeous new film, House of Pleasures, a client of the titular turn-of-the-20th-century brothel mentions that he's just finished reading The War of the Worlds. Its early sci-fi vision of an unfathomable invasion, he says, is "idiotic but pure genius." That a "guilty" pleasure can have profound weight is a fact embodied by Bonello's movie, which was dismissed as porn by many at Cannes in May, and reclaimed as a misunderstood masterpiece by others at Toronto in September.
Bonello's film, like Wells' sci-fi text, is bifurcated by a traumatic event: There's the status quo, and then there's the new normal brought on by a visitor's violation.
At "the twilight of the 19th century," Madeline (Alice Barnole), known around the House as "the Jewess," confesses to a regular date a dream she's had about him, which combines a boilerplate whore's rescue fantasy with a surreal vision of visceral, all-consuming sexual pleasure. The client rewards her for her confession by disfiguring her face with a pocketknife.
Bonello then skips a few months ahead in time, to "the dawn of the 20th century," but returns to visions of this horrific event multiple times over the course of the film, as Madeline more or less steps out of active duty. The languid, swirling narrative drifts between the house's other residents, whose poles are represented by Clotilde (Céline Sallette), an opium addict who increasingly hopes to turn a regular into a husband; and Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), an ambitious 15-year-old new girl who prefigures the feminist self-commodification of the late 20th century. The women are essentially indentured slaves to their madam; they're also a family of workers living together in solidarity.
If Bonello's announced, contemporaneous literary reference is The War of the Worlds, the film's undeclared prevailing influence seems to be Whitman's Song of Myself: Both are unabashedly carnal works, set in times of rapid change, which embrace contradiction. House of Pleasures is a movie full of sexual relations that have little to nothing to do with love — clients ask, "Shall we have commerce?" to get their chosen girl's consent, and every transaction seems to have more to do with fetish than attraction — and yet it's almost unbearably romantic.
Nostalgia is constant, often for a moment either just past or in the process of fleeting, as when Clotilde watches passively as her last chance for a savior slips away. Or when one of the clients asks, "Who will be the 20th century's beauty?" and one of the girls answers, "The Jewess" — just before Madeline's scarification.
The point is not necessarily to wonder what might have been the fate of the Jewess in the 20th century had history not had other plans — that would require a concept of time that's much more linear and absolutist than what Bonello has in mind.
Bonello's use of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" and other late-20th-century songs as party tunes heard in the brothel has been much remarked on, but this is just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the way he plays with our notion of time. The ephemerality of single moments is both the film's subject and a fact of the universe that it seeks to subvert by merging past and present, dream and waking life, life and afterlife, through frames-within-frames and basic editing.
A period piece is an essentially hermetic and exotic thing, always in dialogue with the moment in which we're watching it and the personal conceptions of the past that we bring in. House of Pleasures is both a theoretical work about that process and an embodiment of its pleasures.
Known at Cannes as L'Apollonide or House of Tolerance, the film was retitled by its U.S. distributor, IFC Films, which is pushing this French-language period piece as cult fodder for its VOD business on the basis of its ample nudity and judicious but integral graphic violence. I wish them luck in luring purely prurient audiences to this moody, literate, highly complicated genre-fuck.
HOUSE OF PLEASURES | Written and directed by BERTRAND BONELLO | IFC Midnights | Opens at the Music Hall Dec. 16, and simultaneously available on cable video-on-demand
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.