The world of Bertrand Bonello’s fifth feature, House of Pleasures, is one where a thousand years of sleep doesn’t seem all that strange: Not many films have ever approached the possibilities afforded by the slippery subjectivity of cinematic time so directly, or with such intelligence. An obvious fact: From the very first cut, the cinema’s project of overcoming time has endured, only varying in the intensity of its discoveries. One finds it no less in the montage of Porter and Griffith, where time was first made to double back to meet the demands of the space of the movie screen, than in the discrete durations of Roberto Rossellini or Max Ophüls, where the triangular relationship between the shot, filmic convention, and the continuity of lived experience was exploited to achieve a sort of synecdochal forgery-representation of time. Bonello’s achievement in House of Pleasures continues the line of inquiry set in motion by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films of the 1990s, a synthesis of the aforementioned dominant strains that’s then extended by being triangulated itself with our, i.e., each individual member of the audience’s, conception of history.
This world is nominally that of a Parisian brothel, L’Apollonide (the name of Bonello’s childhood home), at the dawn of the 20th century. Outside of two excursions (one in space, the other in time), the film stays within the walls of the brothel, a space that’s both hyper-specific and ambiguous to the point of feeling fluid. On the former, Bonello and his wife-cinematographer Josée Deshaies have spared no effort in detailing its interiors, from the luxurious parlor to the pragmatically sensual rooms to the just plain old pragmatic spaces where the ladies sleep and eat. Despite this internal specificity from room to room, the house as a whole is only vaguely defined, a space defined by proximities and inferences more than any definite relationship.
Time, in Bonello’s montage, works in more or less the same way: Chunks of traditional movie time (i.e., ones which are internally consistent) are arranged indefinitely, occasionally stuttering or repeating, generally sheared away from everything but the most tenuous of temporal through lines. (For example, we can know that the period of time portrayed by the bulk of the film runs from roughly March through Bastille Day of 1900, though that’s complicated by a guest of the brothel who mentions at the Bastille Day finale his displeasure with a ride on the newly opened Paris Metro, which began service five days later, on July 19th, etc.) If this sounds like the sort of thing that’s generally filed away under “dreamlike” and viewed as nothing more than an artful affectation, let me assure you that it’s not. In fact, it’s here, in the intersection of space and time, that House of Pleasures realizes its supreme achievement, the creation of a mode of historical address that works to convey the experience of its subject in its time while maintaining an awareness of its subjunctive relationship to all the histories that will follow it. Put briefly, the film presents us with the tools for a perfect historical record.
The fact that this is put in service of the situation of a group of female professionals seems sufficient evidence in itself against the shallow charges of misogyny or exploitation that have been leveled against Bonello from various corners of the Anglophone world. House of Pleasures is a film of a world where bodies are inescapably present, which means that breasts and asses and pubic hair (and, yes, penises too) are inescapably present as well. This might be more troubling if Bonello didn’t simply accept these as facts of the job, but he does; here, too, the presence of the audience registers in the decision to elide the actual act of sex (we could reprimand Bonello for not challenging one of the limits of sex in the cinema, but this would be to assert that he should have made a film markedly apart from the one that he has made). And if one wishes that the sex, as it’s shown within the polite conventions of cinema, were less spectacular (a romp in a tub of champagne, a girl dressed and moving like a doll, a mock geisha speaking mock Japanese, etc.), this is to miss one of Bonello’s central ideas: that this is commerce before it’s sex, a prevision of 20th-century capitalism where capital becomes a fiction, the imagined commodity overtaking the material.
This presentation of history-in-progress as a kind of tarot recurs throughout House of Pleasures, nowhere more obviously than in the inexplicable moment of violence that both ends the film’s 19th century and in effect defines its 20th, one that is pointedly perpetrated against a Jew, Madeleine (Alice Barnole); “the beauty of the new century” becomes, cruelly, “The Woman Who Laughs.”
Each of L’Apollonide’s women bears this double identity, their birth names displaced by commercial monikers—“Belle Cuisse,” “La Petite,” etc.—that market their services as succinctly as possible. The implication isn’t schizophrenia, the conflicted split of their commercial from their social selves, but rather the blanketing of the former over the latter: Having chosen whoring out of an array of equaling unappealing professional options, they’ve sacrificed sexual fulfillment for the bonds of friendship. Unlike the war film or the sports film, the two great genres of (male) camaraderie, the sense of familial love shown between the women of L’Apollonide isn’t teleological. That is, there’s no great revelation or achievement that the fact of their friendship exists to support: it will not win the war, or the football championship; it won’t even save them from a world of terrible violence and inescapable death.
So this is what Bonello’s perfect history tells, one of the personal bonds among a group of women who have nothing beyond those. The removal of narrative from history at a structural level allows one to see for the first time the multivalent narratives that comprise the true movement of history, the unsexy, often pathetic happenings of life on the ground, all of which are so mundane and so beautifully lived that for me to describe them in words would be a waste of both of our time. This isn’t to say that House of Pleasures is a boilerplate piece of postmodernism that’s simply opposed to master narratives; rather, it’s deeply concerned with the way that master narratives are shaped, and goes about exploring them from the inside out, and from the bottom up.
In the end (a sudden leap to the present day that’s nonetheless completely within the film’s logically disjunctive flow of time), only Clotilde, L’Apollonide’s emotional core, endures, just as present on cruddy DV as she was on lush 35mm. It’s this presence that lies at the heart of this history, a sense of lives lived that’s achieved through the alchemy of casting (Sallette, along with Adele Haenel, Hafsia Herzi, Alice Barnole, and Jasmine Trinca should all end their careers ranking among the great actresses of the French cinema) and an aesthetic that’s unhurried without being lascivious; Bonello’s approach here is given its fullest expression in a lateral track that considers each of the women as they stand waiting together before a client, his camera moving slowly enough to allow each to register as a unique individual, a real personality, without moving so slowly as to descend into leering with the sexual hunger of the customer waiting behind it.
House of Pleasures’s pièce de résistance comes when, following the death of one of the ladies from syphilis, the women of L’Apollonide gather in the parlor for a moment of grieving set to the Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin,” one of a handful of anachronistic pop songs deployed diagetically across the film. This moment of both grief and its exorcism via its performance comes to a halt when, at the song’s final notes, Clotilde emerges from an opium session and passes out upon entering the room. She awakens in the arms of the recently deceased, and the tender conversation that follows (“If we don’t burn how will the night be lit?”), which isn’t dismissed as a dream or hallucination, but simply presented as it is, perfectly distills Bonello’s project: the days of history as a succession of ghost stories are over; death, taken as inevitable, becomes irrelevant; and freed from the fear of looking forever forward toward death, we can look backward and see in the mirror of a truly lived history an image of a better future. Not an inevitability, but a possibility; this is all we can ask for.