House of Pleasures
French director Bertrand Bolleno paints a picture of stifled eroticism and quotidian ennui in his 2011 portrait of a Parisian bordello: House of Pleasures. Far from glamorizing 19th century prostitution, Bolleno shows us behind the mask to a world of futility and dependence. By shifting focus between the playful public personae and the private turmoil of his characters, one begins to realise these women are caught within a drama that can never end. This is highlighted in Bolleno’s cinematic vision by images and scenes that enter a cyclical rotation from which the viewer is unable to escape.
The central figure in the film, Alice Barnole’s wonderfully depicted Madeline, becomes the rock around which the girls begin to cling. Having once been a prostitute at L’Apollonide, her position is demoted to housekeeper after a brutal assault by one of her clients. While recounting a recurring dream, in which the client offers her an emerald that would purchase her freedom, her assailant declares that he would like to hurt her. Playing along at first, Madeline, known at this time as “The Jewess”, agrees to be tied to the bed; however, the sexual fantasy descends into brutality when a knife is drawn and the corners of her mouth are sliced open.
The layering of this memory into the film is one of Bolleno’s most intriguing devices. As subsequent traumas occur in the house, such as the death by syphilis of one of the girls, we are forever reminded of Madeline’s assault as she relives it in her mind. It is a disturbing joke that Madeline’s nickname changes from “The Jewess” to “The Woman Who Laughs” on account of her disfigured face; however, what this reminds us of is the fact that appearance is everything to these women. Indeed, every girl is known in the house by their nickname, ranging from a description of their physical attributes to an account of their sexual fetishism. And yet, the separation of life and performance is blurred, with the girls referring to one another by their aliases. This loss of name suggests a loss of independence. Near the close of the film, there appears genuine confusion on the part of Madeline when she is asked what her real name is; as she stumbles to recollect it, we realise that she is too far gone.
A recurring trope throughout the film is the idea that these women might escape their lives when their debts, held by the mistress of the house, Marie-France, are paid off. However, even this is carefully managed such that the money that the girls must spend to keep themselves far outstrips any earnings, locking them into their life of misery. The only hope is that one of their rich patrons might buy up their debts; and yet, we are reminded by one of the prostitutes themselves that ‘no one marries a whore’.
Their imprisonment is highlighted through Bolleno’s choice of setting, placing the entire action of the film within the confines of L’Apollonide apart from one significant scene. The oppressive darkness of the interior, with its artificial lighting, is sharply contrasted with the single, countryside outing on which the girls are taken. The bright light and the open space gives them the momentary freedom they so crave. Their nakedness as they dive into the lake is stripped of any erotic suggestion, instead highlighting a pre-lapsarian innocence.
It is Bolleno’s ability to highlight the falsity of the erotic scenes depicted that ultimately prevents this from being a glorification of sex and, instead, a exploration of exploitation. The naked female body is seen as merely a tool in the hands of the clients through the uncensored image of it. By overloading the viewer with such pictures, a transformative experience occurs in which we begin to see the mundanity of the women’s lives; sex is stripped of all its appeal and becomes merely functionary.
What emerges from the moments away from the clients is a group of fragile women who, for whatever reason, have been subsumed into this life of prostitution. Like anyone, they simply want to be loved; and so it is all the more tragic to see them claim indifference to their male companions. In a subtly moving scene, in which the girls discuss their clients around the dinner table, one is asked whether she loves her patron. There is a gentle pause, not as she considers her answer, but as she decides how she can conceal the fact that she does. It is left unsaid; however, the devastation of abandonment is felt at the end when the girl, dying of syphilis, is deserted by her long-time client.
Bolleno has been unjustly compared with directors such as Lars von Trier in his depiction of women; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of the latent misogyny the Danish director so often provides as an undertone to his films, Bolleno makes little on-screen judgment. Rather than answering questions with this film, we are given the opportunity to reflect on the various circumstances that have both delivered the women into this situation and, more importantly, keep them there.
W. J. Humphries