Bertrand Bonello’s fifth feature depicts the lives of sex workers in a turn of the century Parisian brothel with elegant style, and a genuine sense of camaraderie and monotony, but there is something incredibly annoying about the fact that for its US release, House of Tolerance has been retitled House of Pleasures. Not only does this change ignore a direct quote from the film, but the dumbed down title assumes US audiences will find it more alluring. This nitpick aside, this Cannes selected period drama shakes the rigid genre walls with a mixture of modern music, a manipulated time line, and a Kubrick-esque sterility that extends past the obvious comparisons to Eyes Wide Shut.
Inside the red-light marked house, L’Apollonide, a sprawling cast of working women perpetually pay off their debts by allowing their customers to live out their sexual fantasies. To the women it’s just a job like any other, with pros and cons that run the gamut from the intimate kinship with the other women, to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases from a client. The house itself is financially on its last legs thanks to a hike in rent, but the women, some aged veterans, some still in their teens, have yet to be enlightened of the truth. Day in day out, they do up their hair, douse themselves in perfume, and strap on their corsets in hopes of taking as many clients as they can. When given the option to take a normal job with the freedom that would accompany the task, they’d rather stay within the relative safety of the isolated brothel.
In a whorehouse you’d expect to find intimacy among the women and their clients, but as the prostitutes’ work becomes more sexually explicit, the more they become empty vessels, acting out routines for the men’s enjoyment. Where true intimacy lies is within the relationships between the many women. Amongst themselves they discuss the minute details of their work, the dreams they hope to live out, the dreams they’ve had to forego, and the time sensitive nature of their profession. With no eroticism whatsoever, as a group they help each other bathe, dress, and attend regular medical exams, and rarely ever does one find a moment to themselves.
As 1899 rolls into 1900 and beyond, most of the women don’t seem to sense a change in the house until they are all looking for new employment. Time within the film is purposefully arranged to feel unvaried. We rarely leave the bourgeois décor of the house, or even hear what is happening in the outside world. Though these women work to pay off their unnamed debts, they must constantly pay for expensive perfumes and medical bills, effectively rendering them as glorified sex slaves. Bonello occasionally cuts the screen into four equal pieces, emphasizing the monotony that each girl experiences daily, and the hopeless nature of their situation.
Though Bonello’s film is a provocative tapestry of rich visual delicacy and challenging themes, the film itself is an uneasy endorsement of brothels. He makes the case that despite the lowbrow nature of their existence, they do indeed serve a purpose. Without them, some women would still be selling their bodies, but without the safety net of government regulation or the cultivated social structure that comes with having coworkers. This point is hammered home in a surprising final coda that at once seems an odd finale, but feels completely fitting.
With such an intriguing visual palette, and a graceful steadiness to Josée Deshaies’s camera work, its a shame this beautiful film failed to received an HD release, but IFC Films has put forth a respectable effort with the film’s DVD release. The transfer reproduces quite a lot of detail, especially in the faces of the women. Color wise, blacks seem to come across very grey, while greens and pinks look quite natural. Whether the greyish look was intended, I am not sure, as I didn’t catch this in theaters. The French 5.1 Dolby Digital track is quite rounded, and uses the surrounds sparingly. It does however produce warm bass and dialogue without issue.
Casting The Actresses
Comparing scenes from the film to casting footage from the same actresses, this piece runs about 15 minutes. It’s fascinating to see the scenes acted out out of context, but there isn’t any commentary included on the casting process itself.
Prologue: From Writing To Editing
This short doc is longer and more substantial than the previous piece, it dissects the making of the film’s prologue. Bonello speaks on his reasoning behind scene editing, pacing, and the soundtrack. He and his editor show several versions of the same scene in order to show how they came to the final version that ended up in the film. His process is incredibly detailed, and it’s obvious he puts an intense amount of thought into his work.
Giving a hardy miniature dose of the film’s tone, this trailer sets the mood with a slight sense of the plot, but not too much.
Bonello’s erotic costume drama seems to be largely overlooked since its Cannes debut, but hopefully this home release will allow it a new life. A film about a group of bawdy broads making a life in a decadent whorehouse could make for tasteless rubbish, but House of Pleasures is a masterful film that takes it’s sex laden subject, and shapes it into an unsettling tragedy that examines the companionship of the women, and the messy entrapment of a profession they’ve committed to.
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