Sunday, December 11, 2011

House of Pleasures: Boredom in a Bordello

In "House of Pleasures," Iliana Zabeth plays Pauline, a 16-year-old prostitute who manages to escape the fate of most girls in the Apollonide bordello. Watch a movie trailer at Sundance Now. (Photo: www.allmovie.com)

I just caught "House of Pleasures" at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, a gorgeously produced period film that takes place at the turn of the last century. It depicts the end of the era when European bordellos offered Champagne and luxuriously legal sin behind closed doors for rich men who could afford the price of entry. And I mean "entry" quite literally, because these men had access to every nook and cranny of the female flesh on offer.

French director Bertrand Bonello sets his film in Paris, and with the exception of one sunny scene on a river bank, the entire story takes place within the richly sumptuous yet sometimes claustrophobic rooms of a brothel called the Apollonide, a classic bordello where a whore could feel like an elegant courtesan if she didn't think too much about the risk of disease, her growing indebtedness to the madam or her inability to leave the house unless accompanied by a customer or one of the other girls.

Still, "House of Pleasures" creates a lush ambiance of indolence and excess. Grateful old men explore their sexual fantasies with beautiful girls they can worship without ever having to marry. The girls, in turn, accept the men's money, which allows them to lie around the house all day taking baths, smoking opium and stroking a black panther who enjoys lounging in the salon. It all looks great, but life for the girls of the Apollonide looks to be a crashing bore because they can't do anything or go anywhere--even Champagne, marvelous though it is, can and does go flat.

No one woman features as the star of the show--and Bonello said he was more interested in the idea of putting together a group than focusing on a single face--though some characters are standouts: the madam (Noemie Lvovsky) who feels sympathy toward her girls but doesn't let affection get in the way of business; Madeleine (Alice Barnole), a fin de si├Ęcle Jewess who pays dearly for attracting the wrong kind of man; and Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a level-headed 16-year-old girl whose curiosity brings her to the bordello before coming to a logical end.

As a modern woman, I had mixed feelings about the film. It was never clear that the women in the house had any agency, to use a modern term, in choosing their men or their pleasures. Was Bonello just showing the reality of life in a bordello, or ultimately punishing these women for working as courtesans? They weren't, after all, prostitutes turning tricks on a street corner; they were a select group with a repeat clientele of open admirers.

At one point in "House of Pleasures," one of the girls advises newcomer Pauline not to get carried away and enjoy the sex too much. When Pauline asks why not, the girl gives a muddled answer, saying that it's just not done. Well, why the hell not?, I wondered, too, leaving the IFC Center with a frustrated sense of incompletion and gratitude that my Champagne days are few enough to savor.

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