By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Title cards inform us that the action in “House of Pleasures” takes place at the end of the 19th century and, later, the beginning of the 20th century, as though some great significance might be found in the timing of the story.
Well, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s meant to show that nothing much has changed for the women at the high-class brothel where the film’s business is set; they are stuck in the same position in both centuries.
The English-language title (not a direct translation) of this French film can only be taken as a piece of bitter irony; this house offers commercial transactions: the selling of flesh, the passing on of syphilis and sadness. A house of pleasures it is not.
There is no central character, exactly, but the most shocking event in the movie happens to Madeleine (Alice Barnole), a courtesan left with a disfiguring scar on her face. We don’t see the full explanation of what happened until the movie is almost over, but the wound looks like a permanent grin, as though to underscore the falseness of a house where “love” is offered at a premium.
The rest of the workers are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other, although we also meet a newcomer who learns the rules from the bordello’s madam; an opium addict; and a prostitute who does a “doll act” during which she imitates the motions of a marionette, an eerie mechanical performance (but no more mechanical, we assume, than her performance during sex with her clients).
“House of Pleasures” shows plenty of skin, although director Bertrand Bonello makes it clear that the veneer of eroticism on display is always about commerce. Yes, the women are beautiful and the house is lushly appointed, but this is a business. http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20120228/NEWS01/702289937
He jolts us occasionally with a modern song, as though to bring all of this back into a present-day frame. In one scene, the ladies dance slowly and sadly together as the Moody Blues’ ’60s art-rock classic “Nights in White Satin” plays on the soundtrack. It sounds like a mad idea, but the sequence — in which the despair beneath the surface rises to the surface — is genuinely haunting.
There is less time spent on detailing the sexual encounters than on the mundane business of eating, bathing and cleaning, the routines of a factory. Every now and then a client will mention the outside world (the Dreyfus affair in France, for instance), but these intrusions are quickly hushed up in favor of the unreal interior world.
One scene breaks out: The women go on a picnic. The breeze of a summer afternoon is like a rebuke to what happens inside the house, and this little glimpse of the world makes the rest of the movie seem that much sadder.
“House of Pleasures” (3 stars)
At the turn of the century, the women of a high-class Paris brothel go about their business, which is not so much erotic as it is a series of business transactions. This sad film is lushly designed, but it always reminds you of the price paid for turning sex into commerce. In French, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, violence.
Showing: Grand Illusion.