What I Loved: House of Pleasures by Bertrand Bonello

When it screened at last year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival, Bertrand Bonello’s lavish, lugubrious fin de siècle bore the superior title House of Tolerance. The term was a euphemism for a brothel around the turn of the twentieth century and, given the tenor and milieu of Bonello’s film (which is set in the languid world of high-end prostitution), this was perhaps a far more befitting name than the more commonplace one under which the film has been quietly ushered onto local DVD. In short, don’t let the perfunctory title dissuade you. No matter what you call it, Bonello’s was one of last year’s best films.

L’Apollonide, a luxurious Parisian maison close, is waning after decades of catering to the sexual predilections of an elite clientele. Under the pragmatic eye of Madam Marie-Claire (Noémie Lvovsky), a group of young female courtesans cohabit, commiserate and console one another. The women are literally kept: their incomes can’t meet their expenses, indebting them to Marie-Claire as both superior and landlady. Most dream of some favourite client one day settling their debt and proposing, but, as one woman forewarns teenage newcomer Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), ‘Men seldom marry prostitutes.’

L’Apollonide’s opulence belies troubling realities behind the women’s cloistered and ostensibly glamorous existences. One succumbs to syphilis, another withdraws behind an opium haze and another reads quack sociology at her peril. Petty rivalries erupt but camaraderie invariably prevails. The film’s most absorbing subplot – a perverse Gothic romance-come-revenge worthy of Poe – is ultimately a potent demonstration of the women’s solidarity and strength. The beautiful Madeleine (Alice Barnole) is shockingly disfigured by a psychopathic client whose affection she craves, an angry rictus slashed irremediably across her face. She becomes known as L’Apollonide’s mysterious Woman Who Laughs (after the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel), ultimately attracting an enigmatic admirer. The masque she attends at his behest is a scene to remember – two parts Greenaway, one part Lynch.

What sounds unremittingly grim is, in practice, darkly beguiling, thanks to Bonello’s Cassavetes-meets-Kubrick approach. The easy naturalism engendered by the director’s preference for prolonged scenes of idle chatter, the sparse score and the cast’s effortless chemistry is offset by a rigorous formalism. Bonello’s postmodern techniques prompt consideration of the film’s contemporary resonances far beyond the camcorder-shot, present-day coda. More than once the screen is quartered like CCTV footage to afford a simultaneous view of L’Apollonide’s various rooms. Later, a sad event is commemorated by a dance to The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’ in a sublimely anachronistic soundtrack cue.

If there’s a take-home, it’s less moral or ethical than rhetorical, making Bonello an impartial provocateur rather than any kind of polemicist. Did the endemic outlawing and disenfranchisement of brothels – seen here in almost halcyon form, sumptuous and (mostly) hygienic, although conspicuously still not peril-free – best serve their typically indigent employees or the well-heeled moral majority? As House of Pleasure’s final moments make clear, the world’s oldest profession is still in demand. Seldom are impossible questions broached so impressively.

Gerard Elson works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.