“I’M SO TIRED I could sleep for a thousand years,” one of the prostitutes of the Apollonide, an upscale Parisian brothel, sighs in the beginning of writer-director Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which traces the final months of the maison at the dawn of the twentieth century. The lamentation immediately establishes the film’s hypnotic mood: languor and sickly decadence, further expressed when another whore announces, “It reeks of sperm and champagne in here.” The initial complaint also calls to mind the refrain from the Velvet Underground’s 1967 song “Venus in Furs,” itself inspired by the 1870 s/m classic by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The VU era is a touchstone for Bonello, who unmoors us from the Belle Epoque by blasting soul rarities during the opening and closing credits and, after one of their own dies of syphilis, having the doxies dance with one another to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.”
Like the clouds of opium smoke that waft through the Apollonide, House of Pleasures has a narcotic effect, unspooling as a hallucination, a dream, and, in one near-unforgivable moment, a ghastly nightmare. Some scenes and lines of dialogue are repeated right after they’ve ended, a time-stuttering effect that liberates this gorgeously photographed (by Josée Deshaies, Bonello’s wife) period piece from the hidebound qualities usually associated with the genre.
Time may open up, but space is constricted. Except for two scenes (and the coda), Bonello’s film takes place entirely within the walls of the bordello, divided between the luxe parlor, where the well-heeled clients discuss the Dreyfus affair and the opening of the Métro while stroking a black panther, and the rooms upstairs, where the “commerce,” as the prostitutes call their work, is transacted. The mise-en-scène may be sumptuous, but Bonello makes no attempts to glorify the profession; the employees of the Apollonide are all too aware of their enslavement. “If I ever get out of here, I’ll never make love again,” Léa (Adele Haenel) says to her coworkers as they await their mandated, humiliating gynecological inspections.
Even the Apollonide’s ledger-obsessed madam, Marie-France (Noémie Lvovsky, also a writer-director, as are Jacques Nolot and Xavier Beauvois, who play two of the bordello’s habitués), does not hesitate to inform a new employee of the subjugation that awaits her. When sixteen-year-old Pauline (Iliana Zabeth, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the central figure in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère) explains to Marie-France that she wishes to pursue the world’s oldest profession “to be independent,” the proprietress scoffs, “Freedom’s outside—not here.”
In its focuses on what happens inside, both spatially and anatomically—“Men never look into the sex of women enough,” one labia minora–loving john attests—House of Pleasures details the downtime and pre-commerce rituals the Apollonide’s workers share. These relaxed scenes of bathing, dressing, sleeping, and eating crucially foreground the loose camaraderie among the cosseted, corseted prisoners. Bonello shows such compassion and respect for his characters that his decision to graphically—and unnecessarily—depict the gruesome disfigurement of Madeleine (Alice Barnole), who recounts to her client a bizarre dream before she is attacked, stings sharply. And yet even this momentary betrayal is ameliorated by Bonello’s outré special effects: Right before the Apollonide’s red light is extinguished for good, Madeleine, just as she did in her reverie, cries tears of cum.
House of Pleasures opens November 25 at the IFC Center in New York.