Bertrand Bonello’s House Of Pleasures takes place at an elegantly appointed French country brothel at the turn of the 20th century, a setting so beautifully evoked that the perfume practically wafts off the screen. Stretching out over an appealingly hazy 125 minutes, Bonello’s film maintains a delicate tone that’s alternately elegiac and pitiless about life in the brothel, which has its seductions for worker and client alike, but isn’t free from the cruelties that have always attended the world’s oldest profession. In spite of the expensive dresses, the champagne baths, and the illusion of upper-class politesse, the realities of the job are often no different for these women than for 21st-century streetwalkers: They carry debts that only deepen over time. Moneyed clients are no less prone to shocking violence and abuse. And those who are victimized by disease or other physical ailments or scars are essentially doomed.
In many respects the European analog to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1998 film Flowers Of Shanghai, another claustrophobic tale of high-end courtesans in the late 19th century, House Of Pleasures follows life in the brothel as changing times and insurmountable debt hasten its decline. Though Bonello is more interested in documenting the seductive, suffocating atmosphere of the place than driving the narrative forward, a few characters emerge. The most harrowing among them is the story of “The Girl Who Laughs,” so called because of the Joker-esque scars left on her face after a kinky session with a sick client takes an awful turn. She’s indefinitely resigned to kitchen duty and other behind-the-scenes labors, but she’s also relieved of the illusions the other women carry about the marriage proposals that will buy their freedom.
The House Of Pleasures makes the connection between the lives of sex workers then and now clear enough by inserting anachronistic music on the soundtrack—the use of a certain late ’60s Moody Blues song is particularly inspired—but there’s a shade of nostalgia to the film as well. As Bonello details its nightly routines, the brothel takes on the qualities of an organism, one that’s mostly bonded in feminine solidarity, but nonetheless subject to forces beyond its control. Without soft-pedaling it in the least, Bonello nonetheless mourns the passing of a time where prostitutes didn’t control their destinies, but at least had each other.