Tag Archives: Prostitution

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)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:  Julia Leigh

FEATURING, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie

PLOT:  A quiet but reprobate student blindly contracts for unconventional assignments with an enigmatic madam to cater to the peculiar perversions of the ultra-rich.

Still from Sleeping Beauty (2011)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTSleeping Beauty is not a sex-movie, but rather a tense, eerie multiple character study. The focused, unadorned manner in which it is shot, without a musical score, combines with the bizarre nature of its story to set an unusual mood which demands that we take it seriously. This atmosphere, and the choices the writer and director made in deciding what elements of its story to show us, to make Sleeping Beauty a weird and unusual viewing experience.

(Ignore the website and DVD jacket descriptions of this slick Aussie thriller; because US distributors don’t know how to present unusual efforts to a general audience, the synopses grossly mischaracterize this effort as some sort of racy potboiler. Sleeping Beauty is not a sex piece, even though Emily Browning looks just like a Real Doll sex doll in the trailer. Sleeping Beauty is not another Eyes Wide Shut. It is not designed to be racy or titillating. Nor is it a murky, confusing David Lynch-style movie, although fans of Lynch’s works will surely love it. Sleeping Beauty is in no way what I expected. It is unpredictable and although it declines to utilize a demented twist ending, I assure the reader he will never guess where it is heading).

For additional fun, be sure to look for an appearance by actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the crazed “Toecutter” in 1979’s Mad Max.

COMMENTS: Wow! What a gem! I was hoping for something different and creepy from the trailer. I was not disappointed! Yet I was surprised. I was expecting something sci-fi or horror, about turning girls into living sex dolls. Sleeping Beauty turns out to be so much more unsettling, sophisticated and subtle. From its opening frames, the somber cinematography and unabashed, close-in concentration on its characters makes it clear that you are watching a serious, high-quality effort crafted by a writer and director who know exactly what to do. There’s a controlling sensation that your impressions are being skillfully manipulated by the filmmakers. Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)

105. BELLE DE JOUR (1967)

“By the end, the real and imaginary fuse; for me they form the same thing.”–Luis Buñuel on Belle de Jour

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Jean Sorel, , Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page

PLOT: Séverine is a wealthy young newlywed who proclaims she loves her husband, but refuses to sleep with him. Her erotic life consists of daydreams in which she is bound, whipped and humiliated. She decides to secretly work as a prostitute during the day, taking the stage name “Belle de Jour”; in the course of her adventures a macho young criminal becomes obsessed with Belle, and he sparks sexual passion in her, as well.

Still from Belle de Jour (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was based on a scandalous (but moralizing) 1928 novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel.
  • Belle de Jour marked Buñuel’s return to France after his “Mexican exile.”  It was the 67-year old director’s most expensive production to date, his first film in color, and his biggest financial success.
  • The director did not get along with the star, and the feeling was mutual. Buñuel resented Deneuve because she was forced on him by the producers. For her part, the actress felt “used” by the director.  Whatever their differences, however, they made up enough to collaborate again three years later on Tristana.
  • Séverine’s courtesan name, “Belle de Jour” (literally “day beauty”) is the French name for the daylily; it is also play on “belle de nuit,” slang for a prostitute.
  • Too spicy for critics in 1967, Belle de Jour won only one major award at the time of its release: the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.  It now regularly appears on critics top 100 lists (Empire ranked it as the 56th greatest film of world cinema).
  • Martin Scorsese was behind a 1995 theatrical re-release of the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The ecstatic look on Catherine Deneuve’s face as, tied up and dressed in virginal white, she’s insulted and spattered with shovelfuls of mud (or is it cow dung?).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although the movie weaves in and out of dreams and reality until we don’t know which is which, by Luis Buñuel’s standards Belle de Jour is a straightforward dramatic film.  Even the dream sequences are relatively rational, unthreatening, and easy to follow, making Belle the favorite “Surrealist” film of people who don’t like Surrealism.  But something about the dilemma of Séverine/Belle’s divided personality, and her uncertain denouement, sticks with you long after “Fin” appears.  The movie’s weirdness is subtle but persistent, like the scent of a woman’s perfume that lingers in the air long after she’s departed the room.


Original trailer for Belle de Jour

COMMENTS:  Cinematographer Gil Taylor famously said “I hate doing this to a beautiful woman” Continue reading 105. BELLE DE JOUR (1967)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS [STORIE DI ORDINARIA FOLLIA] (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Marco Ferreri

FEATURING: Ben Gazarra, Ornella Muti

PLOT: Alcoholic skid-row poet Charles Serking (a pseudonym for Charles Bukowski, on

Still from Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)

whose stories the film is based) drinks, writes poetry, has bizarre sex with a small harem of loose women, and finally falls in love with a beautiful but self-destructive prostitute.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Though no movie where a barstool patron calmly inserts a giant safety pin through her cheeks can be said to be unweird, Tales doesn’t go over-the-top in weirdness, and doesn’t compensate with exceptional insight or drama.

COMMENTS: Tales of Ordinary Madness’ greatest asset is the fact that it recreates the feeling of sitting on a bar stool listening to a charming, plastered braggart tell tall tales pulled from a head full of hazy, half-remembered adventures.  The first sequence illustrates the method.  Bleary eyed, brown-bagged bottle in hand, a bored Serking stumbles out of a poetry reading and discovers a runaway nymphette has set up a makeshift bedroom, complete with clothesline hung with her dainties, in an antechamber of the deserted performance hall.  “Are you real?” he asks as a prelude to pedophilic seduction. She answers in the affirmative, but we have our doubts—even though she seemingly leaves him a pair of panties and takes a bus ticket.  That’s not even the most improbable of the soused author’s sexcapades, which include stalking a woman who later claims she likes to be raped, having a beautiful call girl pay him for sex so he will ruin her for her clients, and trying to re-enter the womb with the help of a game, dumpy housewife.  Each vignette has the feeling of something that might have happened, but not quite in the way it’s told to us. When Serking gets his break and is sent to the writer’s big leagues, the paid fellowship gig involves sitting in an office cubicle in a literary assembly line under the sickly green glow of a fluorescent tube.  Throughout the film, we see Serking engaging in some increasingly odd adventure that passes out before it gets too strange. He then wakes up alone, as if he’s sobered up and reality has reset itself.  Besides boozing and womanizing, Serking occasionally writes poetry, although it can turn Sam Spade-ish: “Los Angeles… some call it Lost Angels.  Me, I was just another one of the lost, back where I belonged…” Ben Gazarra goes all-in for the role, and a less committed performance might have wrecked the film.  With a winning smile beneath a ragged beard, he delivers his street poetry in a boozy, bemused baritone that conveys more hard-earned wisdom than is actually contained in the naive romanticism of the script.  Exotic Ornella Muti is more luminous and intoxicating than the glow of a neon beer sign in a dim bar, and the series of increasingly shocking body mutilations she goes through penetrate the heart far more than Serking’s doggerel.  The movie’s principal problem is its unreflecting over-eagerness to buy into the “tragic artist drowns his sorrows in a river of pleasure” mythology.  The portrait is of a young male poet’s fondest fantasy: be fashionably sad, drink all day, bang out a few sentimental lines every now and then, and beautiful women will throw themselves at you.  The layer of grime necessary to cut the glare of the glamor is missing: Gazarra is too healthy, too vital, too clear headed, too able to shrug off the whiskey and get an erection whenever he needs one.  He only vomits once.  But perhaps that’s all part of the movie’s “it really happened, but not quite the way I’m telling it now” stylistics.

Charles Bukowski’s life was also the subject of a more conventional and accessible film, Barfly (1987), with scruffy Mickey Rourke looking more beaten down and low-rent than Gazarra’s relatively presentable portrayal.  More recently, Matt Damon tackled a Bukowskiesque figure in Factotum (2005).  Bukowski himself reportedly did not like Tales, and some critics complain that this reverent work misses out on the writer’s subtlety and undercurrent of irony.  I suspect, to the contrary, that the movie captures the Bukowski project too perfectly.  Like a lesser William S. Burroughs, this is an artist whose literary reputation comes from his tormented persona rather than from his actual writings.  This narcissistic artistic fantasy, where warts are redrawn as beauty marks and paraded as badges of authenticity, makes Bukowski’s personal mythologizing look too transparent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere inside its unworkable blend of pretension and pornography, there’s a serious film about art and sexual abandon struggling to get out… concentrates solely on the lurid aspects of Mr. Bukowski’s writing and exaggerates these so greatly that all else is lost.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Natalia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: WINTER OF FROZEN DREAMS (2009)

DIRECTED BY:  Eric Mandelbaum

FEATURING: Thora Birch, , Brendan Sexton III, Leo Fitzpatrick, Dean Winters

PLOT: An unambitious young man balances uneasy alliances with the authorities and his psychopathic girlfriend when she involves him in a meretricious murder case.

Still from Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Non linear story telling, oddball characters and incomprehensible motivations combine to weave a tapestry of weirdness in this contemporary film noir mystery.

COMMENTS:  Some movies don’t have to be garishly bizarre to be weird.  Winter of Frozen Dreams employs a soft, almost poetic production style to tell a tawdry tale of twisted topics set down as causally as if the story were an episode of the Donna Reed Show.  The nonlinear plot is partially presented through the flashbacks and subjective impressions of a cast of oddball, unsavory characters whose disorganized, irrational lives inexplicably intersect in a convoluted morass of lies, depravity, deceit and murder.

Set in 1977 Madison, Wisconsin, Winter of Frozen Dreams relates the events of the notorious Hoffman murder case.  On Christmas day, Gerald Davies walked into the police department and announced that he had helped his girlfriend dispose of a bloodied, battered corpse at the Blackhawk Ski jump park near Middleton.  Police accompanied him to retrieve the body of Harry Berge and a series of perplexing events began to unfold that led to the arrest of Barbara Hoffman.  The case drew a great deal of attention because it was the first televised murder trial in the state.

Of even greater interest to the public was the fact that the accused was a beautiful girl with an IQ over 140 who led a triple life.  In addition to being a straight ‘A’ biochemistry student at the University of Wisconsin, Barbara Hoffman was a psychopathic whore and Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: WINTER OF FROZEN DREAMS (2009)