Friday, April 20, 2012

House of Pleasures

On the last day in March, I saw House of Pleasures at the Viz.

House of Pleasures; directed by Bertrand Bonello; French with subtitles; (2011)

The film appears to have the French title L'Apollonide which is the name of the eponymous brothel as well as an alternate English title House of Tolerance.

Set in a 1890s French bordello, House of Pleasures is a grim treatise on the lives of the prostitutes set to an oddly evocative blues soundtrack. The film is far from exploitative. House of Pleasures is almost clinical in its observations of the dozen or so women. Although the film explores the relationship between the women, the main focus is on the physical and emotional impact of "the job." Disfigured, diseased and drug addicted, the women suffer greatly as a result of their interactions with clients.

Most of the film takes place in L'Apollonide where the women are cloistered like nuns. The women come there of of their own free will and are treated well as far as prostitutes are concerned. Their madam is a benevolent dictator but like another film (Japanese I believe) I cannot recall at the moment, the women are obligated to stay at their jobs due to their debts for room and board.

Two girl's stories stand out. Madeleine (Alice Barnole) has dreams that semen oozes out of her eyes; not much subtlety there although I particularly liked the visual depiction of the dream. She is later disfigured by a client cuts her mouth into a permanent smile a la The Joker or Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. She is left to wander the house for the rest of the film, trying to make herself useful in a place where the coin of the realm beautiful women. I never really decided if it was more compassionate to keep her in the house where her friends lived or alternatively, let her leave to world where she would only be known as the disfigured whore.

Céline Sallette as Clotilde's is first among equals in terms of character development. Old at age 28 Clotilde is concerned about her future but grimly soldiers on...with the help of an opium pipe. A sympathetic character, Clotilde's fate is summarized by the final scene which flashes to the same Parisian street in present day. Sallette plays a streetwalker symbolizing the repetitive fate of these women. It's not called "the world's oldest profession" for nothing.

Despite the film's detached view of the women and their gilded cage environment, the film was emotionally draining for me.

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