Drama, with horror fringes, is the corset that binds Bertrand Bonnello's House of Pleasures, formerly (and more lyrically) titled House of Tolerance. A hidden but defining force in a largely story-less film, drama is pushed so far into the background as to disappear from time to time, but it never leaves the scene entirely. In the foreground is a great, complex interior space, a hellish mirror image of Jerry Lewis's The Ladies' Man, in the form of a fin de siècle-era Parisian brothel. We see the place during and after hours, when the girls entertain, and in the daylight, when preparations are made, finances are discussed, and new-hire interviews are conducted. Only once, when the girls enjoy a Renoir-esque picnic on a riverbank, do we venture out of the gloomy, velvet-lined purgatory.
Bonnello's film, which views the pleasure-taking of the city's privileged with dispassionate thoroughness, has caused consternation with some moviegoers; its defenders say this is because of some obsolete demand for the authorial voice to be one and the same with the voice of moral supervision, as if it was some tattered sex-education film, and required a clean-cut, Republican gym teacher watching the audience to make sure nobody's goofing off or, you know, enjoying it. It might be a deeper issue of construction, as Bonnello's tone is ethereal, hard to pin down, passing silently between the banality of everyday operations and creeping, ever-present-at-the-edges Gothic horror—the way he uses contemporary music cues to induce mood, but not to excavate subtextual meanings.
Perhaps most troubling of all, there's his quicksilver-y sense of morality, in which he refuses to condone or condemn the girls' exploitation (or, if you think along such lines, their "choice" in being exploited), but doesn't get all high and mighty in refusing to condone/condemn either. We see the girls objectified in almost every possible way—prodded, posed, fucked, made to dress up and speak fake Japanese, or to act like dolls. (Regarding the last, anyone who's seen the "Belle Chose" episode of Dollhouse will get a wicked pang of déjà vu.) We hear clients making and withdrawing promises, toying with their emotions; in one case, a client disfigures one of the girls for life. Resisting any kind of supervisory or prompting voice, whether it's "Looky over here!" or "Look upon these heinous acts and disapprove as I do," or even "Just coldly cataloguing the myriad ways the male clients get off, in geometric, clinical fashion," Bonnello creates a void that must seem troubling to some. If the world he creates has any familiar correlative for American viewers, David Milch's Deadwood is similar in the way it weights verisimilitude, the unclean, lived-in-ness of history/the past, over providing the viewer with the comforts of a familiar road map.
In spite of the heavy abstraction/diffusion of conventional drama, the backstory of the disfigured girl is woven, with a gentle lack of emphasis, into a largely straight-ahead chronology, indicating that the satisfactions of dramatic closure, as well as the unsettling, disruptive power of horror, isn't unimportant to Bonnello. How else do we explain the early shock cuts to the bloody-mouthed girl, screaming in terror and agony, or the inevitable resolution of that story arc, which observes Chekhov's law of first acts and third acts? Still, Bonnello's hand at abstraction seems sure, as he structures the editing pattern around gentle, playful fragments, and gives us at least two indelible images: the now-famous "semen tears," and the "Knights in White Satin" sequence. While some of my colleagues were more carried away by the film's seductive, dirge-like rhythms, I found myself craving something more, some other chords for Bonnello to strum—though it could have just been that I couldn't tune into his particular frequency. Also, the video coda, real-life footage of the girls' present-day counterparts, seemed like a sudden, 11th-hour lapse into the prosaic, as well as the pedantic.
IMAGE / SOUND:
A film that could get by on looks alone, a Blu-ray for House of Pleasures would seem to be a no-brainer, but that wasn't in the cards for this release, at least not at the moment. Given the compromise of standard definition, the velvety blacks that dominate Bertrand Bonnello's frame are faithfully reproduced, but artifacting and edge enhancement seem a problem throughout, and the complex color palette is often a challenge; there's some posterization in backgrounds and some of the subtler color gradations (i.e. most of the film). The film's partisans won't really tolerate this hasty, loveless job, and doubters won't be convinced; at best, those on the fence will "see" it. The 5.1 French track has a heavy front end and a healthy bass; its cleanliness is consistent with a major, recent release from MPI Media Group.
Nothing noteworthy: two behind-the-scenes featurettes and a trailer.
Bertrand Bonnello's haunting, multi-layered visual tour de force gets a mediocre standard-definition release.