Film Review: House of Pleasures

This oddball drama is part celebration, part vilification of a celebrated turn-of-the-century Parisian brothel and its denizens. Strictly for art-house fans impervious to things bizarre, offensive and indulgent.

As evidenced by so much of its art, culture and laws, France has always had an open mind when it comes to sex for sale. So it’s no surprise that Bertrand Bonello’s kinky, often inscrutable take on the world’s oldest profession during its Belle Epoque heyday was a recent Cannes Official Selection.

What does surprise is how not-pleasurable this House of Pleasures is, considering its provocative concept of an insider’s look into an upper-class bordello in a colorful, permissive era of lush design and lascivious possibilities. In spite of this somewhat depressing film’s voyeuristic vibe, there’s no triple-X material that might even attract the artsy among the raincoat crowd.

Amidst plenty of breast baring, leg spreading and dirty talking, Bonello does inject some social commentary (the great class divide, female exploitation still thriving today, gender and class bonding, the stubborn presence of anti-Semitism, etc.). But with no story arc beyond the soon-to-diminish popularity of sex for sale within Paris’ luxurious grandes maisons, life in this particular maison of pleasures grows tedious when it’s not flat-out confounding. Outré encounters and superficial characters don’t help matters.

What story there is seems to be framed by the horrible face-slashing endured by prostitute Madeleine (Alice Barnole), at the wrong end of a knife wielded by a sadistic john. Disfigured by sweeping scars at both edges of the mouth, she embraces new brothel duties like making beds rather than making it in beds.

Head of house is film industry vet Noemie Lvovsky in the role of Madam, who deals with the headache of landlord problems of the familiar raise-the-rent kind. Her stable of prostitutes is either seen with their johns or fraternizing off-hours like any group of chatty girls at boarding school or a seven-sister college.

Among them are the exotic Samira (Hafsia Herzi); Lea (Adele Haenel), who dresses as a doll and can mimic a doll’s motions for fetish-prone johns who like to sodomize; Julie (Jasmine Trinca), whose nickname “Caca” gives away her speciality of the house; and Clotilde (Celine Sallette), that dramatic staple of the relatable gal who just yearns for a respectable life.

A number of French filmmakers like Jacques Nolot and Xavier Beauvois slum as the johns and no doubt have a great time hanging with fellow filmmaker Bonello, a vet of five films, including the Jean-Pierre Leaud starrer The Pornographer.

Ultimately, vanity in this film flows as generously as the champagne. Split-screens (as many as four), confusing time shifts, and explosions of contemporary rhythm-and-blues and pop tracks threaten that all-important suspension of disbelief. And what about whimsical choices like having young country girl Pauline spout fluent Japanese. Hello? It’s a lesson in the risk of taking liberties that pull viewers out of a story.

In the end, House of Pleasures reminds that the French, especially in the art they make, dare to and are enabled to do things differently.