Sense and Sensibility

Bertrand Bonello, On War, 2008, 35 mm, color, sound, 130 minutes.

THE CENTRAL FIGURE in the mesmerizing films of Bertrand Bonello is the voluptuary, who may be a seeker or supplier (whether professional or otherwise) of pleasure, and whose respective quest or obligation to satisfy sensual appetites can lead to enlightenment, madness, brutality, decline, or even death. Of the sybarites who have populated the writer-director-composer’s seven feature-length works to date, perhaps none is as towering as the title character in Saint Laurent, a thrilling biopic on the legendary couturier whose release on May 8 occasions the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s welcome Bonello retrospective.

Pleasure principles—and principals—are anatomized within the context of France’s political stasis in The Pornographer (2001). Jacques Laurent, the eponymous smut auteur, is played by Nouvelle Vague paradigm Jean-Pierre Léaud, as desiccated here as he was in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996), in which he starred as another moviemaker, if not the XXX kind. Jacques, whose past hits include Perverse Niçoise, Schoolgirl Hotel, and I’m Hard, I Come, I Sing, appears incapable of committing to anything or anyone—not to his latest hard-core production, The Animal; or his wife, Jeanne (Dominique Blanc), who financially supported him during several dormant years; or his university-age son, Joseph (Jérémie Renier), with whom he has established a fragile rapprochement that soon disintegrates. Now fifty, the adult-entertainment maestro mentions more than once that he made his first blue movies in May ’68, never more defensively than to a journalist whom he finally agrees to meet for an interview: “Making pornographic films was a political act.…I could have filmed naked women in front of a factory, but it wouldn’t have been very exciting.” His words are hollow, pitiful, full of quasi-revolutionary bravado that not even Jacques himself seems to believe anymore.

Another filmmaker nearing professional and personal crisis—this one quite tellingly named Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric)—serves as the protagonist of On War (2008). With the vaguest of notions about his next project (“It’s about someone who thinks a lot about death”) Bertrand, who yearns to emerge from his low-grade anhedonia “to be dazed be life,” takes up a two-week residence in a cult. More specifically, this manse in the French countryside is “a military order, but not a belligerent one,” per one acolyte, overseen by Asia Argento, who tells her newest charge: “Today, pleasure is something you have to win, like war.” In this Gallic Esalen/Burning Man/boot camp, Bertrand comes close to the sublime—particularly during a far-out rave sequence, in which each devotee forms not a writhing mass of bodies but resolutely remains a solitary gyrator—only to teeter too close to losing his mind. Though not all of On War seizes the viewer with the same force as that bizarre dance piece—a riff on Apocalypse Now is especially wearying—the film proves Bonello’s gifts at both satirizing and sympathizing with a character adrift, who may or may not be a version of himself.

Yet the director extends his greatest compassion to the employees—prisoners, really—of the Apollonide, the opulent Belle Epoque Parisian bordello of House of Pleasures (2011). Featuring some of France’s greatest millennial actresses (Adèle Haenel, Céline Sallette) among its doxy ensemble, the film sates the senses with its luxe decor and impeccably arranged, languid bodies. Although the mise-en-scène may be sumptuous, Bonello has no interest in glorifying the profession. To the applicant who says she wants to work in the flesh trade “to be independent,” the madam of the maison scoffs, “Freedom’s outside—not here.” The ladies of the Apollonide remain trapped within its walls; Bonello’s filmmaker characters Jacques and Bertrand can and do go anywhere, not advancing but retreating.

“I Put a Spell on You: The Films of Bertrand Bonello” plays at the Film Society of Lincoln Center April 29–May 4.