[HOUSE OF PLEASURES screens Friday February 17th at 9:15 pm and Saturday February 18th at 7:05 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
HOUSE OF PLEASURES (L'apollonide (Souvenirs de la Maison Close) is undeniably erotic in both intent and execution, but it also has a darker subtext perhaps best exemplified in the character of Madeline (Alice Barnole). Madeline is a prostitute who goes by the nickname “The Jewess” until an encounter with a sadomasochistic client results in her face being horribly scarred into a permanent smile. Then she becomes “the woman who laughs”, and although her popularity with customers wanes, there are still those whose particular tastes lead them to seek her out.
The film is a period piece set in an upscale French bordello at the turn of the 20th century. Madeline is just one of about a dozen girls employed there that the film follows, the others wearing their scars on the inside. Some delude themselves that a regular customer will take them away from their life, but most know there's no way out. Even the madame who ostensibly runs the place and keeps her girls in virtual slaver through debt is herself a hostage to her landlord, who can run her out of business by raising the rent on a whim.
Director Bertrand Bonello imbues his film with a hazy and sensuous feel while at the same time making clear that the sex on display is an utterly joyless transaction. There's also a hint of surrealism early on when we're not sure if what we're seeing is dream or reality. Lines of dialogue occasionally repeat, there are odd touches like a pet panther that lives at the bordello, and an element of Sadean horror brought in by Madeline's disfigurement.
So is HOUSE OF PLEASURES art or exploitation? It's either or a bit of both depending on the viewer, I imagine. There are some ideas to chew on, but then there's also a lot of naked female flesh beautifully photographed as well. I'm reminded of the kind of European softcore sex films that used to do quite well in America until hardcore porn relegated them to midnight showings on pay cable channels like Cinemax. Many of those films aspired to both eroticism and substance, and were all the more interesting for it. Such is the case here as well, although two hours is probably a bit too much time to spend in this world, and the way Bonello is more interested in his setting, themes and atmosphere than character may be off-putting to some. (3 out of 4 stars)