NR, 122 min.
Director/Writer: Bertrand Bonello
Starring: Noémie Lvovsky, Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Jasmine Trinca, Adéle Haenel, Alice Barnole, Iliana Zabeth
I’ve reviewed a couple of erotic movies that were praised by other critics, and have found myself sorely disappointed by such films. When the French film “House of Pleasures” made its way stateside last year and was lauded by critics, I figured it was another one of those art house erotic films that looks darn good, but has little to offer beyond the scenery. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
First of all, “House of Pleasures” is hardly a work of eroticism, it is a serious drama that looks at life in a bordello in turn of the 20th century Paris. It doesn’t so much give us a linear story as it gives impressions of the different personalities of the women and girls engaged in this red light work. It shows us the daily routine and the elements most people wouldn’t think about. It shows the dangers of the job, both violent and medical. It shows the bordello as a community that, like many work places, has its clicks and its unspoken rules. The women also share camaraderie from being involved in a unique and isolated profession.
We learn that many of the clients are regulars, but the filmmaker gives them little attention because what the women see of these men is rarely real. There was the notion that a client might like you so much that they would buy you out of the profession. This is a rare practice, however.
We get to know a few of the women. Their stories are fascinating and compelling. Most of them work to get rid of some sort of debt. Usually the expenses that keep theirs one of the premiere houses in Paris keep the mistresses in debt, however. The Madame, whom we also learn little about, does seem to care for her employees, though. When a client seriously injures one, she is kept on to do laundry and serve as a specialty escort. Another contracts syphilis and is cared for by the entire staff.
“House of Pleasures” is beautiful to look at. It’s also beautifully written and beautifully structured. It holds mystery and drama. It shows heartbreak and joy. It has a dark and deep atmosphere. It even has a surprise at the end that will make you think.