Old French Whores

11/23/2011 4:00 AM |

House of Pleasures
Directed by Bertrand Bonello

Like Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (due out next Friday), Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures is a feminist film about prostitution with the languorous, trapped-in-amber feel of an ominously fractured fairy tale. But where Leigh’s alienated stranger in a strange land is almost entirely defined and ultimately engulfed by the male gaze, Bonello offers up the comforts and pleasures of female friendship as a response to the cold menace of unchecked male domination.

Except on the rare occasions that their madam (Noemie Lvovsky) or clients take them out, the dozen or so prostitutes in House of Pleasures are not allowed to leave the well-appointed Parisian brothel where they work during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. And we stay right there with them, the camera hugging close to study their faces or capture the intimate groupings they fall in and out of all day and night. Having sex in the private rooms upstairs, mingling with the johns in the ground-floor parlor in a kind of nonstop cocktail party, or banding together to sleep, eat, and prepare for work from the very early morning to the late afternoon, they live out a kind of parody of bourgeois domesticity in which nothing is as it seems except their mutual love and support.

A muted sense of menace enters the house every night as the men come back, providing an uneasy counterpoint to the soul-killing tedium of the goings-on. (There’s plenty of fucking but very little heat here, since the sex, which is mostly either robotic or thoroughly fetishized or both, is presented from the women’s workmanlike point of view.)

That steady thrum of dread rises to an almost unbearable pitch whenever the film circles obsessively back to a story introduced in the opening scene, which it revisits with an insistence that ultimately feels voyeuristic. Hearing a vivid nightmare that the tragically sensitive Madeleine (Alice Barnole) recounts once too often and then seeing it acted out, in a literal-minded and lingering shot, drains the central image of its original power, and seeing Madeleine get horribly disfigured long after we’ve figured out what happened to her feels exploitative.

But the film generally uses repetition thoughtfully, reprising scenes with enough variation to convey new information and enough similarity to drive home the excruciatingly slow drip of passing time in the women’s tightly circumscribed existence. When three- and four-way split screens show what’s going on in different parts of the house, the multiple images underscore the numbing familiarity of the activities shown, and the control the women have to cede over their own bodies when they’re with their clients is echoed in the humiliatingly public gynecological exams they submit to every month and the slave-at-auction-style examination of a prospective new employee by the madam.

A present-day coda that imagines where one of the women might be if she were alive today and the use of contemporary songs in two key scenes serve as none-too-subtle reminders that the prison these women are trapped in hardly disappeared with the 20th century. But on the whole, House of Pleasures is refreshingly undidactic, a bluesy portrait of a vanished subculture that seems less interested in historical accuracy than in emotional authenticity.

Opens November 25 at IFC Center