House of Pain
Published on December 10th, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer1
“House of Pleasures” (“L’Appollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close”) is now playing at IFC Center.
Running time: 122 minutes. Not rated.
French writer-director Bertrand Bonello’s ”House of Pleasures” (“L’Appollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close”) is a fascinating, gorgeously realized, finely detailed portrait of a place, a time, a profession, and, most of all, a group of women.
The film opens in Paris in November 1899 in a high-class brothel in the intimacy of a private exchange of sex for money. A lovely young prostitute (Alice Barnole), upon being given a ring by one of her regular clients, asks him, “Is this a proposal?” It isn’t. She then proceeds to recount to him a dream in which he wears a mask while making love to her and in which his semen fills her entire body and seeps from her eyes like tears, tears that she doesn’t want to wipe away. Watching her and listening to her describe this dream is reminiscent of certain monologues in Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”–simultaneously disturbing and erotic, unsettling yet strangely beautiful.
A few weeks later, the man returns to the brothel. By now we know that the prostitute whose bed he frequents is known as “La Juive” (“The Jewess”). Before the two of them again take to a bedroom, however, we overhear some discussion of a historically factual contemporary event–the pardoning of Captain Albert Dreyfus, a military officer of Jewish descent who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and who, as a result, spent five grueling years in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island in French Guiana before finally being exonerated on September 20, 1899. In response to being reminded of Dreyfus’s recent pardoning, one of the men in the brothel’s parlor room expresses his disgust, French society at the time being largely divided between Dreyfusards, who believed that Dreyfus was innocent, and Anti-Dreyfusards–generally anti-Semites, who believed that he was guilty.
The men and their chosen lovers for the evening then repair to the various bedrooms, the simultaneity of whose scenes the film brilliantly, but without ostentation, illustrates by splitting the screen into a four-paneled grid (à la Mike Figgis’s “Timecode”), each panel revealing a different pair of lovers in flagrante delicto. It’s all pleasantly kinky until the grid is interrupted quite dramatically by a sudden cut to a shot of “La Juive” screaming, naked, tied to a bed, her face completely covered in blood. It’s so shocking as to be difficult to immediately register; it is a moment for which we are utterly unprepared. And with it, the film’s first act abruptly ends.
“L’Appollonide” is not, however, a horror movie. The horrible image that ends its first act nevertheless hovers over the rest of the film, inflects it with an unending pain and a deep sadness. “La Juive” survives her attack, which, we can only surmise, was committed out of anti-Semitic rage, whether calculated or impulsive. She is left horribly scarred, a permanent grin sliced across her face in the manner of Heath Ledger’s The Joker, and thereafter prefers to be called by her real name, Madeleine, a name which recalls, especially for French audiences, Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” a novel in which debates over the Dreyfus Affair figure prominently. Her beauty irrevocably marred, she is kept on at the brothel as a cook, a cleaning lady, a washerwoman. But thanks to decadent, fin de siècle tastes for fetishistic sex, she is soon re-christened “The Woman Who Laughs” (“La Femme qui rit”) (Bonello’s homage to Paul Leni’s classic 1928 film adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel “The Man Who Laughs,” a film Bonello dreamed about two nights in a row while writing “L’Appollonide”) and made the centerpiece of pay-to-watch orgies.
Madeleine’s is the melancholy spirit that haunts the film, but she is not its sole focus. “L’Appollonide” is very much a film about all of the women who work at the turn-of-the-century brothel in which the film is set. The male (as well as a few female) clients who patronize the house play only supporting roles in the film. We never leave the women’s company, and they only leave the house once for a girls-only day in the country, complete with a luncheon on the grass and a swim in the river, a sequence at once recalling the short stories of Guy de Mauppassant, the cinema of Jean Renoir, and the paintings of the proto-Impressionist Édouard Manet, the Academic painter William-Adolphe Bougeureau, and the École des Beaux Arts-educated American painter Thomas Eakins.
“L’Apollonide” is full of cultural references, but they are never forced; they are, rather, sewn perfectly into the ornate but organic fabric of the film, endowing it with some of its loveliest nuances. One of its most charming characters, one with whom we have perhaps the easiest time identifying, is Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a sixteen-year-old girl who appears, especially when she disrobes in her interview with the Madame, to have just stepped out of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1887 masterpiece “The Large Bathers,” resembling as she does the voluptuous auburn-haired beauty at that painting’s center.
For much of the beginning of the second act, “L’Apollonide” becomes Pauline’s film as we watch her adapt to her new life as a prostitute charged with catering to the perverse whims of the house’s clients–making love, for instance, in a bathtub full of Veuve Clicquot, or dressing as a geisha and speaking fake Japanese, which she “translates” into an erotic Aubrey Beardsley-esque fantasy of her tongue sliding across the floor towards her client, slithering up his leg, and wrapping itself around his “sex.”
Although firmly set at the end of 1899 and the beginning of 1900, “L’Appollonide” indulges at certain moments in the anachronistic touch of including several examples of popular music from the 1960s. I think that these songs work, however, as they are used–like the split screens which appear several times to give us a glimpse of the full, varied life of the house–sparingly, and as a result produce greater impact than they would had they been used constantly. And they don’t feel anachronistic, because their effect is to imbue their scenes with emotion (rather than to to make us think of the 1960s, although that era’s hedonism is certainly a relevant allusion), whether it is The Mighty Hannibal singing his 1966 classic “The Right to Love You” to give voice to the dreamed-of proposals of marriage to the women from their clients, dreams bandied flirtatiously about like shiny but non-redeemable tokens of affection; or The Moody Blues’ 1967 song “Nights in White Satin,” heard as the girls slow dance with one another in quiet mourning of their dear sweet Julie, killed by syphilis; or the cathartically intense, unjustly obscure 1967 deep blues recording “Bad Girl” by Lee Moses, the film’s closing song, which transitions us to the final shot of the film–modern-day Paris, where prostitutes ply their trade on the streets, where the sisterhood we have witnessed among the women of the brothel, however much they hated the work they did and felt trapped, no longer exists to provide the support it once did.
The film’s message is, however, ultimately ambiguous, which is one of the aspects of “L’Appollonide” that I admire and that makes it a work of art. It neither condemns nor celebrates prostitution but instead lays this commercial enterprise and social and cultural phenomenon bare, attempting, as few films have done, to depict all the complexity of the lives of fin de siècle prostitutes in a way that neither degrades them nor praises them, but humanizes them. At the same time, it should not be taken in any way as a documentary, a filmic form it in no way pretends towards. If “L’Appollonide” touches upon any truths, it does so by way of drama, fiction, poetry, acting, music, and all of the other arts that are brought together to produce great cinema.