There’s a well-established tradition in film of men visiting prostitutes and then declining to sleep with them. Whether their goal is to save the woman from a life on the streets or to give them a few moments of nonsexual companionship or whether the men simply lack the nerve (or potency) to go through with the act of sex, it sometimes seems like screen hookers spend considerably less time fucking than they do being talked at and don’t usually seem too pleased about it. But what if the woman is in no position to express her dissatisfaction or to register any form of conscious response at all?
In Vadim Glowna’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, based on the story by legendary Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the director stars as Edmond, an aging recluse still lamenting the death of his wife and daughter in a car crash (was it an accident? An act of suicide?) 15 years earlier, who is tipped off by a friend to a highly secretive whorehouse that offers a very special kind of service: the prostitutes are injected with a sleeping potion and cannot be awoken during the session. But rather then sleep with the young women, Edmond unburdens himself, filling in the silences with reminiscences, laments and meditations on his approaching death, the very youth of the sleeping girls adding spice to his reflections on mortality.
Telling what amounts to a rather simple story, Glowna puffs up his exposition with quotes from Chinese poetry, rounds of heavy-handed symbolism and experiments in multiple narration. From the patches of red that enliven the darkened quarters of the brothel and the repeated shots of ravens traversing a gray sky to the voiceovers shared between the movie’s characters, there’s the sense of a perpetual compensation for the essential thinness of the narrative.
Edmond’s monologues to his unconscious paramours are plenty ponderous (and are given an offhand realism by the dual nudity of the two figures), but without amounting to much more than a sort of circular rumination buoyed by the revelation of a rather ordinary backstory, the old man’s words fail to offer much in the way of resonance. So Glowna intercuts this stream of language with flashbacks and interpolated imagery from the film’s catalog of symbols, an approach that reaches its overworked apex in the picture’s conclusion, a sort of life-flashing-before-ones-eyes-cum-meeting-with-the-angels scenario that betrays skillful editing but also a certain lack of imagination and taste. Then the device of the unconscious prostitute as confessor seems too much the stuff of sordid male fantasy and, despite the film’s occasional switch into thriller mode, revealing a darker side to the brothel’s operations, goes largely unquestioned by Glowna’s method. The film’s enduring image remains that of the nude director cuddling up to a nubile beauty and talking her ear off. But what’s finally objectionable is that he really has nothing to say.