tongue-tied lightning


The Best Films of 2011: #19 House of Pleasures

Bertrand Bonello’s last film On War, left me rather cold despite starring two of my favorite working performers in Mathieu Amalric and Asia Argento, so when his latest received abysmal notices at Cannes I was too ready to write it off. But a small vocal group of critics and generally positive word of mouth at subsequent festivals led me back to it, and I’m glad it did. It’s funny to me that IFC tried to market this as an erotic film. Despite copious amounts of nudity, anyone coming to House of Pleasures looking for titillation is bound to be sorely disappointed. The title was even changed from the original, more appropriate English translation House of Tolerance, which itself is a step down from the French L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close.

Souvenirs being the key word, as the film is a loose collection of scenes chronicling the fall of L’Apollonide in the transition from the 19th to 20th century. This is highlighted by its flash-forward epilogue that seems to imply nostalgia for the time of bordellos despite Bonello’s graphic look into the perils associated with such a lifestyle. What he seems to cherish is the democratic camaraderie the women turn to as a means of transcending their enslavement.

The costumes and set design are easily the most luxurious I’ve seen this year. The thick velvet drapes are filmed in such detail that you can almost feel their texture and smell the sweet scent of opium smoke emanating from them. Bonello and cinematographer Josée Deshaies frame the women lounging in the common room in the manner of Auguste Renoir. Images that are lent a sense of irony by the cold look at their daily routines and the addiction, disease, and violence that come with them.

I was initially intrigued by the casting of Hafsia Herzi, who was the only exceptional aspect of 2007’s The Secret of the Grain, but I was most impressed with the performance of Céline Sallette as Clothilde, who struggles with disillusionment and ultimately opium addiction. She factors into the films’ finest scene, as the women gather together in a moment of despair and dance to the Moody Blues’ “Whites in Night Satin” tears streaming from their faces. It’s one of the best scenes of the year and without it I’m not sure the film would’ve made the cut.

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