Tag Archives: French

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , , Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran,

PLOT: Six friends attempt to have dinner together, but repeatedly fail for increasingly bizarre reasons.

Still from Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A plot so simple it’s barely a plot at all starts out small and, through masterly use of the running gag, steadily builds throughout the film, getting more and more absurd until the apocalyptic finale. And if that’s not enough, there are numerous dream-sequences, sometimes nested inside one another, and not always clearly distinguishable from reality. Also, undead policemen!

COMMENTS: Leaving aside Un Chien Andalou, which will forever be in a class of its own, Discreet Charm might just be Buñuel’s masterpiece. The Academy Awards Committee certainly thought so when they gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973. No close-ups of razor-slashed eyeballs this time; this is a nice, gentle, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. Except that that description would be as misleading as taking the title literally. It’s true that there are no pianos full of dead donkeys, but we do get an electrified piano used as an instrument of torture, from which cockroaches stream as the convulsions of the screaming victim create impromptu musique concréte-–an act for which the policeman responsible is first murdered by outraged student radicals (offscreen), and then condemned to return as a gory apparition (onscreen) every Bloody Sergeant’s Day (June 14th, if you’re thinking of throwing a party). There’s definitely something unusual going on here!

So unusual that “whose subconscious are we in now?” is a very pertinent question, 38 years before it was asked in Inception. One particularly bizarre scene turns out to be only a dream, and the action picks up where it left off. But then it turns out that this too is a dream, and the character who dreamed the first dream is not only still dreaming, but dreaming that he’s somebody else! Confused yet? The visibly nervous professional movie critic in the useless featurette on the Region 2 DVD clearly was. He correctly points out that this is a dream within a dream. Not so tricky, since the film explicitly says so. What he seems to have missed is that the dream-within-a-dream is probably a continuation of the previous scene, in which implausible events take place, and characters who don’t appear in the rest of the movie behave very oddly. One of them entertains the assembled company by recounting a dream about his dead mother, which we see. So what he have here is almost certainly a dream within a dream within a dream…

Then again, other incredibly strange things occur which aren’t dreams at all. Or are they? There isn’t any sure way to decide which parts of this film are “real”, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: it’s fiction, so none of it’s real. Still, there’s obviously some strange kind of logic holding it all together, even if we aren’t told what it is. This is why, like , Luis Buñuel belongs on the A-list of weird film-makers. Throwing the rules out of the window is enough to make a movie “weird” in the sense of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but to reach the next level, you need to replace what you threw out with something else. Buñuel understood this perfectly, and plays with it all the way through the film. A very distinctive object features in what turns out to be a dream, yet reappears in the scene that follows: a subtle clue that we’re still in the dream (there’s absolutely no way  wasn’t taking notes here). But another dream seems to be genuinely prophetic. And so on: a tangled web indeed!

Almost every joke follows the pattern of the main plot by starting off quite tamely, but turning out to have at least one more layer. The initial appearance of a saintly bishop results in his mild humiliation and all-round embarrassment, due to a silly and quickly resolved misunderstanding that wouldn’t be out of place in a Seventies sitcom. But just when you think Buñuel’s attitude to the church has mellowed with age, it turns out that the unsuspecting monsignor is being set up for a punchline which, when we finally get to it, is as dark as they come.

This film is not weird in the sense that watching it is an endurance test. This is mainstream weirdness with excellent production values. But don’t let that fool you: every single thing that happens here is as off-kilter as the attitudes of the main characters, who honestly believe that the lower classes are subhuman because they don’t know the correct way to drink a dry martini. Discreet Charm may or may not make the List, but it’s definitely on mine.

“Buñuel seems to have finally done away with plot and dedicated himself to filmmaking on the level of pure personal fantasy… We are all so accustomed to following the narrative threads in a movie that we want to make a movie make ‘sense,’ even if it doesn’t. But the greatest directors can carry us along breathlessly on the wings of their own imaginations, so that we don’t ask questions; we simply have an experience.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies

CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

That Obscure Object of Desire has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments on this post are closed.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina

PLOT: A rich French businessman courts a beautiful young Spanish woman over the years, but although she sometimes professes to love him, she continually refuses to consummate the relationship.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Obscure Object is one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest. If you merged the two actresses who inexplicably share the role of Conchita into one, you could almost mistake this parody of obsessive bourgeois eroticism for a normal comedy—almost.

COMMENTS: The “gimmick” of two actresses playing the object of desire is the high-concept highlight of That Obscure Object of Desire, but make no mistake: the casting was not a desperation move to salvage some sort of novelty value out of a dull script. Buñuel’s final film is one of his most tightly controlled and plotted movies, the work of a 77-year old master intent on putting the final punctuation on a distinguished career. The story is simple: prosperous, respectable, middle-aged Mathieu meets 18-year old serving girl Conchita and attempts, and fails, to seduce her. She leaves his service, but as the years go on he continues to encounter her, whether by chance or by design, and gradually he works his way closer and closer to her heart—but although she declares her love for him, she never surrenders her virtue. Buñuel and his totally committed trio of actors push the dramatic scenario further than you would think possible: the erotic tension builds and builds until surely, you think, something has to break. Either Conchita will give in or Mathieu will tire of being teased and rid himself of her forever. And yet, after each frustrating encounter, the bourgeois businessman comes back for more, and Conchita is willing to continue the dance. There are moments when rape seems inevitable, but that solution would wreck the game, so they push right to the brink before pulling back and resetting.

It’s not all unbearable erotic tension: Obscure Object is, at heart, a droll and absurd comedy, full of sophisticated, off-kilter jokes; even if you don’t always get them, you feel smarter for chuckling at them. Some gags are obvious: there’s a variation on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’ joke—this time, it’s in a martini. One night, Mathieu lures Conchita to his bedroom; Angelia Molina asks “can I change?” and goes into the bathroom to put on her nightgown; she emerges as Carole Bouquet. At other times the humor is more oblique and surreal, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Mathieu tells his story to traveling companions on a train; one is a dwarf, and a professor of psychology—but he only gives private lessons. A Spanish fortune teller carries a pig wrapped in a blanket like a baby. The movie is set in a Europe where terrorist bombings are a background fact of life; one of the revolutionary groups is named “the Revolutionary Army of Baby Jesus.”

This being a Buñuel film, there’s a constant subtle mockery of the unexamined values of the middle class. Mathieu casually tells the strangers in his train compartment how he essentially tries to purchase Conchita off her cash-strapped mother, and how he beats and humiliates the girl after he’s been sexually frustrated. Rather than being scandalized by the shameful confession, everyone takes his side, nods understandingly and comforts the respectable victim. Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the capitalist system of romance: men, the class with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive love and sex. This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either sex: men will remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—their erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. Just as the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie never get to eat, Mathieu never gets to… you know.

As for why two women play Conchita, it’s one of those deliberate Surrealist accidents that suggest interpretations that remain obscure. Do Bouquet and Molina represent two sides of the same woman, a divided personality, female duplicity? I lean to the reading that there are two women because Mathieu, the bourgeois man, can’t understand the “object” of his own desire; he no more notices that his love changes before his very eyes than he sees that the society around him is crumbling into anarchy.

According to co-writer and longtime Buñuel collaborator , the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the woman chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role.

The Criterion Collection lost the rights to Studio Canal’s Buñuel collection, and therefore the 2013 Blu-ray of That Obscure Object of Desire was released by Lions Gate (buy). It has different special features than the Criterion DVD, including interviews with both Bouquet and Molina.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Buñuel creates a vision of a world as logical as a theorem, as mysterious as a dream, and as funny as a vaudeville gag.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: AMELIE (2001)

Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mathieu Kassovitz, Dominique Pinon, Rufus

PLOT: An introverted and imaginative Parisian girl devotes herself to secretly helping those around her, but is it only because she’s afraid to go after love herself?

Still from Amelie (2011)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Amélie makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, it will thanks to the “sliding scale” rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to qualify. While Amélie has more than its share of literally magical moments, it’s a little hard to swallow that something this universally beloved could qualify as “weird.” Describing it, fans will often resort to such “weird-lite” adjectives as “peculiar/odd/quirky.” Still, it is a much-adored movie, and it may be a worthwhile addition to the List to represent the more whimsical side of the weird.

COMMENTS: Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the two early 1990s collaborations between Jean-Pierre Jeunet and , were spicy-sweet concoctions. Each was at heart a romantic fantasy, whether the story was about lovers rescued from cannibals or fairy tale orphans adopted by circus strong men, but a note of piquant surrealism always added bite to the sentimental overtones. When the pair split, it became clear which one was the romantic and which the weirdo; without Caro’s dark humor grounding him, Jeunet was, for better or worse, set free to soar into the stratosphere of whimsy. So comes Amélie, a life-affirming trifle which is about twice as tickly and almost as substantial as the bubbles rising off a glass of Dom Perignon. In Audrey Tautou, Jeunet found the perfect actress to embody his pixie girl who secretly enters the lives of others to bring joy or justice. Tautou has huge, liquid brown eyes that look like cross between a six-year old girl’s and a puppy dog’s. She’s incredibly beautiful, but so cute and girlish that it’s impossible to lust after her; it’s almost impossible to think of her as a sexual creature at all. And for most of the movie, she isn’t; her amiable frigidity is the source of altruistic superpowers, and overcoming her lack of sexual selfishness constitutes her heroine’s journey. Amélie’s childhood background is delivered breezily, complete with animated crocodiles and suicidal pet fish. She grows up as a sheltered introvert with an imagination that brings her skies full of bunnies and teddy bears; as a new adult, she shyly enters into a squeaky clean movie version of Paris that comes dangerously close to kitsch (you half expect to see characters walking around in those berets and striped shirts actors wore in Benny Hill sketches to indicate they were tres French). Fortunately, there are interesting, conflicted people sitting around in cafés with thorny problems for her to solve, including rejected lovers, hypochondriac tobacconists, abandoned wives, and cruel street grocers. She secretly and shyly manipulates their lives, largely as a way of avoiding her own attraction to a man whose hobby is collecting pictures discarded at photo booths; she eventually succumbs to her desires, but putters about with oblique stratagems for meeting her beau that involve various disguises, puzzles and scavenger hunts as she delays her own happiness as long as possible. It may sound insufferably cute, like a diabolical plot by some French  to turn Americans into a bunch of Francophilic wimps, but it really is legitimately charming, grandly cinematic, and amusing. Wonderfully unreal, magical diversions abound, such as glowing hearts, talking photographs, and people spontaneously dissolving into puddles. The TV channel that’s beamed into Amélie’s Montparnasse flat features nothing but the bizarrest programming: one despondent night, she watches her own funeral parade on the tube. Frothy, funny, and French almost to a fault, it’s easy to see why this uplifting movie has won so many hearts over the years; the film is harder to resist than Tautou’s smile. Still, I note that, despite its overall exceptional quality, Amélie doesn’t feature that one tour de force scene, like the bedspring symphony in Delicatessen or the incredible teardrop sequence from City of Lost Children, to hang its hat on. Jeunet without Caro, to me, is like McCartney without Lennon; and although I appreciate Amélie for what it is, part of me will always think the script would have been punchier if one of Caro’s cannibal butchers has popped up to thin out the cast.

After they ended their partnership, Jeunet went on to unprecedented success with Amélie; his film school friend Marc Caro’s directorial career did not take off so well. After 1995’s City of Lost Children, Caro did not direct a solo feature until 2008’s sci-fi flop Dante o1. He has found work as an art director, however, including designing sets for ‘s spectacular Enter the Void, the third Certified Weird project he was involved in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…very peculiar but utterly captivating… it takes awhile to get used to the loopy sensibilities and biting, sometimes dark humor.”–Jeff Vice, Deseret News (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nobody,” who called it “a beautiful and unique movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SHEITAN (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Kim Chapiron

FEATURING: Olivier Barthelemy, ,

PLOT: Four young people agree to spend Christmas at the country home of a beautiful stranger they meet at a Paris club, but the oddball caretaker takes an intense and unhealthy interest in one of the crew.

Still from Sheitan (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The adjective “weird” pops up a couple of times in reviews describing Sheitan, but we suspect that the misusage must be due to a lack of exposure to the truly bizarre stuff. Up until Sheitan‘s final act, there’s little—other than Vincent Cassel’s oddball performance—to suggest this French slasher lies very far outside of the normal range of teens-in-a-cabin horror. Unusual direction and a strange finish nudge Sheitan just barely into the weird column, but not enough to compete with the big weird boys.

COMMENTS: Honestly, despite a gonzo performance by an uncomfortably peppy Vincent Cassel, a steamy male-male-female threesome, and a startling final image, the thing that sticks with me most about Sheitan is how hateful its protagonists are. The movie starts with the fours youngsters at Club Styx, where the most emblematically despicable of the lot, Bart, is chilling out with drunken resentment. He finally works up the courage to make a clumsy pass at an understandably disinterested chick, then starts verbally abusing her when she rejects him. He sucker punches a Prince Charming who steps in to defend the innocent girl’s honor, spits in a bouncer’s face, and gets a well-deserved bottle upside his head. This, ladies and gentlemen, is our antihero, and he doesn’t get much more pleasant from here on out. He dreams about taking advantage of a female friend while she sleeps, kicks a goat, and blames everyone around him for all the bad karma he brings on himself. Although his buddies are shallow, sex-obsessed petty thieves, their worst quality is that they willingly remain friends with Bart. Bart is so abhorrent that when the clearly deranged groundskeeper Joseph (Cassel) of the house at which the gang has decided to spend Christmas Eve immediately emerges as Bart’s nemesis, we enjoy it. The perpetually grinning Joseph (Cassel’s jaw must have hurt like hell when he left the set each night) makes ambiguously homosexual suggestions to Bart, while at the same time constantly forgetting the boy’s name. The annoyance Joseph breeds in le bagge de douche whets our appetite to see these kids finally get bumped off in grisly ways (but warning: the obnoxious cast survives for far too long). There’s no doubt that this reversal of our expected sympathies is deliberate, or that it has the disquieting effect of tempting us to root for the “evil” character. As an experiment playing with the audience’s feelings and expectations, Sheitan is successful; that does not, however, make it pleasant watching these nitwits. There is symbolism along the way: religion, from the Garden of Eden to the birth of Christ, is referenced frequently and sometimes cleverly. And the fact that each of the feral French twentysomethings is from a different ethnic background—an African, an Arab, an Asian and a native Gaul—seems somehow significant. On the movie’s plus ledger, Cassel is possessed and magnetic, Mesquida is a sexy revelation, and the hallucinatory ending leaves us with some lingeringly sick imagery. Still, the thing I will remember about the movie is it’s painful vision of odious, amoral youth with horrible taste in music. This movie really hates young people, which is cool and all—hey, we all want those damn kids to stay off our lawns—but Sheitan goes just a little too far.

Sheitan is sometimes considered part of the “New French Extremity” genre of transgressive horror, along with movies like ‘s self-mutilation feature In My Skin (2002), Alexandre Aja’s ultraviolent slasher Haute Tension (2003), and others. It’s Deliverance-style urbanites-at-the-mercy-of-peasants theme is reminiscent of the similarly unpleasant but far weirder NFE feature Calvaire (2004). Ultimately, Sheitan isn’t very “extreme”—you will see more blood in any typical Hollywood horror—but it shares the genre’s queasy pessimism about human nature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…deeply weird, art-housey, nerve-shredding French horror…”–David Mattin, BBC (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: HOLY MOTORS (2012)

Holy Motors has been promoted to the List! Please check the Holy Motors Certified Weird entry for more information and to comment. This initial review is left here for archival purposes.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Kylie Minogue,

PLOT: “Mr. Oscar” drives around Paris in a limo taking on nine “assignments” which require him to become an accordion player, a hitman, and fashion model-abducting leprechaun, among other personae.

Still from Holy Motors (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Holy Motors is overwrought, pretentious, obscure, scatterbrained, confusing, and self-indulgent—all qualities that typically make for a great work of art. The main knock against it certifying it as one of the 366 Best Weird Movies immediately is that it’s not yet out on DVD—but keep an eye out for it in the near future.

COMMENTS: Leos Carax’ segment in the portmanteau film Tokyo! revolved around a gimpy, gibbering leprechaun dubbed “Merde” (played by Denis Lavant) who arose from the sewers to scandalize the polite people of Japan by eating money and licking schoolgirls on the street. In that movie Merde served as a symbol of Japanese xenophobia, a surreal and satirical rendition of boorish Western invaders as seen through Eastern eyes. Lavant reprises Merde in Holy Motors, but here the character is even more random, limping through a Parisian cemetery eating flowers off of gravesites and abducting a fashion model (Eva Mendes) with the backbone of a rag doll. The idea that an already mysterious and absurd character like Merde would be resurrected and tossed into a situation that’s even further out of context is typical of Holy Motors‘ approach. In between a very weird prologue featuring director Carax as a man living in a secret room behind a cinema where shadowy beasts prowl the aisles, and very weird epilogue featuring chauffeuse Edith Scob and a parking lot full of telepathic limousines, Lavant (presumably) plays ten different roles—nine “assignments” and his base character of “Mr. Oscar.” There are no connections between the parts he is assigned: some, like Merde, are purely absurd, some are musical, and some are legitimately moving human moments. Each segment operates according to its own internal illogic. The roles are arbitrary, like the jobs any working actor would take: this month an action hero, next month a dying benefactor. At times we see, or at least think we see, hints of the “real” person behind Mr. Oscar, but mostly we see him applying his makeup in front of his mobile vanity mirror, preparing to disappear into a new role. It’s never suggested what the purpose of these performances might be, or whom they are for the benefit of, or if they ever end (when Oscar goes home for the night, it appears he is only playing another insane character). Scenes that appear to involve Mr. Oscar as “real” person sometimes turn out to be part of another assignment; if we try to figure out who Oscar really is, we’re continually frustrated. By the end of the long twenty-four hour session Mr. Oscar looks weary, sad and resigned; but he must wake up in the morning and do it all over again. It’s a bravura suite of performances by Lavant, who is appointed to capture the whole strange and tragic spectrum of human activity in a single day. In Carax’ eyes this spectrum involves motion-capture sex scenes, accordion intermissions, and mixed human-chimpanzee marriages. Prepare to be perplexed. You won’t, however, be bored.

Carax assembled a fascinating cast for his first feature film in over a decade. Gnarly faced Lavant, who has appeared in all of the director’s previous films as well as gracing weird works by  and , was the obvious choice for the lead in the most ambitiously odd art film of the French calendar. The casting of Scob and Piccoli, who between them have worked with all of the great European Surrealist filmmakers of the past, from to to Buñuel, is an equally obvious nod to Carax’ influences, one that positions Motors as the latest link in a long cinematic chain. Australian popstress Kylie Minogue immediately scores unexpected cool points by appearing in this project, while glamour girl Eva Mendes follows up her role in ‘s Bad Lieutenant with this even weirder part. We definitely approve of the way her career is headed (even though her recent choices probably make her agent tear his hair out).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…weird and wonderful, rich and strange – barking mad, in fact. It is wayward, kaleidoscopic, black comic and bizarre; there is in it a batsqueak of genius, dishevelment and derangement; it is captivating and compelling.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who said it was “weird, weird, weird. You already guessed, I know that, but right now I’m making it official. For once, I’m pretty confident it’s going to make its way to the List…” . Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

130. WEEKEND (1967)

“What a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people.”–Roland

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Mireille Darc, Jean Yanne

PLOT: Corrine and Roland are a married couple who are cheating on each other and who hope to inherit money from Corrine’s dying father. They set off on a weekend trip to travel to the father’s deathbed, but find the French countryside is a giant traffic jam filled with burning wrecks. As they struggle to reach their destination they meet fictional and historical characters, magical beings, and feral hippie terrorists.

Still from Weekend (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • According to writer/critic Gary Indiana, Godard based the structure of his story on Friedrich Engel’s “The Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State,” but reversed the historical progression so that the movie proceeds from civilization to savagery.
  • Mireille Darc, who had starred in the types of popular comedies and spy films Godard despised, petitioned the director for a part in one of his movies. He agreed to cast her in Weekend; when she asked him why, he answered, “because I don’t like you… and the character in my film must be unpleasant.”
  • The scene where Mireille Darc tells her lover about a threesome with another man is a parody of a similar scene from ‘s Persona (1966), and also a reference to George Bataille’s surrealist/erotic novella “The Story of the Eye.”
  • Godard often makes literary and historical references without announcing them. Some of the characters who appear in the film are Robespierre’s lieutenant Louise Antoine de Saint-Just, Tom Thumb, and Emily Brontë.
  • Weekend was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
  • When Weekend wrapped, Godard reportedly told his usual crew to look for work elsewhere, as he would be abandoning commercial film from that point forward. (This story is probably apocryphal, since Godard’s cinematographer Raoul Coutard didn’t remember such a formal announcement; nonetheless, Godard did cease making commercial movies after Weekend, and Coutard and the other regular crew members didn’t work with the director again for many years).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The celebrated traffic jam, an eight-minute tracking shot scored to the sound of honking horns. The camera surveys a lineup of stalled vehicles, and our interest never flags as we pass people tossing balls from car to car or playing chess in the middle of the highway, autos upturned on the side of the road or smashed into trees, and trailers housing monkeys and llamas, until we reach the tragic source of the congestion. Roland and Corrine zoom past increasingly angry motorists in their convertible, sometimes racing ahead of the camera and sometimes falling behind it, and we slowly realize the strangest feature of the backup: there’s nothing blocking the opposite lane, and no reason the other drivers can’t simply zoom around the trouble.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Introduced as “a film adrift in the cosmos” and as “a film found in a scrap heap,” Weekend is, more than anything, a nasty and bitter assault on bourgeois French culture of 1967: a revolutionary rejection of consumerism, propriety, and even (or especially) of the need for plots that “make sense.” Today, Godard’s mix of Marxism, alienation, transgression, Surrealism and fourth-wall breaking seems “oh-so Sixties”; but the passionate hatred that fuels this ambitious attack on good taste and good sense endures, giving Weekend an anarchic vitality that survives its turbulent era.


Original French trailer for Weekend

COMMENTS: Weekend is both a satire and a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Certainly, Corrine and Roland, who care for nothing that can’t be bought (a Continue reading 130. WEEKEND (1967)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF PLEASURES (2011)

Souvenirs de la Maison Close; AKA L’Apollonide; House of Tolerance

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Bonello

FEATURING: Alice Barnole, , Iliana Zabeth, Noémie Lvovsky, Xavier Beauvois

PLOT: This drama follows the travails of a group of prostitutes in a belle epoque bordello.

Still from House of Pleasures (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: House of Pleasures sports a few stylistically odd and unreal scenes, including a stunner at the end that goes down as one of the strangest and saddest dream images ever committed to film. That single scene very nearly puts the movie into contention for the List, but despite its flirtations with surrealism Pleasures is ultimately more devoted to sorrow than weirdness. Still, it has enough strangeness and beauty in it to make it more than worth your while, if you can handle painfully pessimistic, slow-paced anti-erotic tragedies.

COMMENTS: House of Pleasures begins with a courtesan’s dream, a dream whose elements recur and form the boundaries of the story. The movie itself is dreamy, languid and unhurried, depicting a world where women in flowing gowns and elaborate underwear spend evening after evening lounging on chaises with gentleman callers, drinking champagne, smoking cigarettes, and eventually visiting the upstairs chambers for kinky lovemaking sessions. Sex buyers and sellers alike drift hazily through the curtained corridors of the maison like the smoke rising off an opium pipe. For these women every day is the same as every other: a never-ending party where they must always serve as the accommodating hostess. They dress in the finest silks and drink champagne from crystal goblets, but for them pleasure is a business, a daily grind. They can only be happy in the brief moments when they are together, away from the clients, eating meals, playing cards, sharing a Sunday picnic by a river. We learn the rules of the Parisian bordello game fairly quickly: the ladies make money seeing their clients, but the madame charges them outrageous fees for room and board so that they always owe the house money. Their only realistic hope of escape is that a client will fall in love with them and agree to pay off their debts and marry them; it happens very rarely, but often enough to give them the spark of hope they need to keep going. The wealthy clients have other interests besides matrimony: making the women pretend to be dolls or geishas, or tying them to their beds for rough play. The authorities tolerate the brothels, but they won’t intervene if a landlord decides to charge usurious rent, or if a john decides to take a knife to one of the girls. The women’s daily existences would be rough enough, but writer/director Bonello ruthlessly piles on the tragedies: violence, disease, disfigurement. He’s particularly cruel to Madeleine, the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble piece, who is known variously as “the Jewess” and, in a nod to an Expressionist classic, “The Woman Who Laughs.” She is made to suffer betrayals and humiliations almost beyond imaging. Bonello’s occasionally surreal stylistic choices—the black panther who regularly visits the establishment with his master, a libertine freak orgy, the way that Madeleine’s dreams and memories replay over and over throughout the film, destroying the continuity of time—alienate some viewers. But whether these flights of fancy always succeed or not (I could have done without the anachronistic music, particularly a scene set to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”), they provide a necessary counterbalance to the otherwise unbearable reality of these women’s lives—much like the opium pipe one of the prostitutes favors in her downtime. It’s a sad dream gilded in glamor, and the tears it elicits are strange indeed.

House of Pleasures could be seen as a feminist “anti-prostitution” movie, but it is more complicated than that. As the house is facing closure, the madame realizes that the fin de siècle has arrived and the age of the elegant, tolerated bordello is passing: “love is out on the street, no one can stop that.” A bitter modern coda suggests that, as tragic as their circumstances were, the women in House of Pleasure may have been better off than their contemporary counterparts. The only uplifting element in these enslaved women’s lives was the friendship and the support system that came from living together communally; today’s streetwalkers suffer the same indignities as their forebears, but without the camaraderie. While deeply sympathizing with the plight of these women, Bonello also recognizes the inevitability of prostitution, perhaps suggesting indirectly that the proper solution to the problem is neither criminalization nor see-no-evil “tolerance,” but actual humane working conditions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strictly for art-house fans impervious to things bizarre, offensive and indulgent.”–Doris Toumarkine, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)