Thursday, December 8, 2011

House of Pleasures

Emile Zola is alive and well in the Paris of Bertrand Bonello’s House of  Pleasures, an almost clinical study of a turn of turn of the century brothel called L’Apollonide. The film employs jazzy cinematic tricks such as replaying a previously shown sequence in medias res. It’s one of a number of techniques which create several degrees of separation from pure naturalism. The cinema verite of Battle of Algiers could have been one way to deal with the subject, but it’s definitely not the approach here. Rather what we have is a lot pyrotechnics in the service of a didactic message that actually would have been better told in documentary style. There is the Jewess whose mouth is slit by a sadistic patron and who because of her disfigurement becomes known as “la femme qui rit”, “the woman  who smiles.” Another courtesan, Julie, is disfigured by the syphilitic canker sores which cover her face. One of the prostitutes weeps as she reads a scientific tract called Anthropmetric Study of Prostitutes and Thieves, given to her by a client, arguing that prostitutes have smaller heads which therefore contain less brain matter. The extravagant set piece in which the girls live is contrasted to the harsh lives that is microscopically observed from the start. They live in a state of perpetual debt to the madam that can never be paid off and the rituals of abuse, cleansing and routine inspection by an unkindly doctor are all acutely scrutinized by the camera. It should be mentioned that time is a sub theme, though it’s something that is relatively undeveloped. We are at the “twilight” of the nineteenth century as the film begins and at the “dawn” of the twentieth at another moment. And then with a rock score in the background we view street walkers in present day Paris. The world’s oldest profession indeed, but Nicholas Kristof’s Times columns about sex trafficking are ultimately a far more direct and effective jeremiad than the studied confusion of Bonello’s film.

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