Souvenirs de la Maison Close; AKA L’Apollonide; House of Tolerance
DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Bonello
FEATURING: Alice Barnole, Hafsia Herzi, Iliana Zabeth, Noémie Lvovsky, Xavier Beauvois
PLOT: This drama follows the travails of a group of prostitutes in a belle epoque bordello.
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: