When it premiered to inexplicable pans at Cannes, classical musician–turned-director Bertrand Bonello’s seductive period piece had the coarser title House of Tolerance (or Memories of a House of Tolerance in French). Stateside, it’s been renamed House of Pleasures, presumably so IFC can rope in the Skinemax crowd. Let’s hope these soft-core enthusiasts also get off on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1998 masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai, which Bonello’s film recalls in look, subject and score. A portrait of the last days of L’Apollonide, a Parisian brothel at the turn of the 20th century, the movie is less sexy for its nudity than the aesthetic pleasures of a world beautifully realized. In lighting, costuming and art direction, Bonello has conjured a milieu as opulent as it is chilling.
This was an age when prostitution functioned as pageant as well as bourgeois indulgence (the brothel appears to keep a panther as a pet), and the movie seems appropriately fascinated with the art of looking. Scenes of clients gathering in opium-clouded rooms alternate with more matter-of-fact, clinical details of cleanup or doctors’ visits. The film sets up dichotomies between playacting and reality, old and young (Alice Barnole’s face-slashed veteran contrasts with fresh-faced rookie Iliana Zabeth), beauty and degradation, freedom and imprisonment and – as emphasized through a fourth-wall-breaking use of pop music – past and present. The surroundings may be gorgeous, but they’re also stifling; only once do the women exit L’Apollonide. Even so, part of the fascination of Bonello’s film is its simultaneous interest in the material and the ethereal. It’s objectifying without ever losing sight of the humanity at its core. Ben Kenigsberg