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The final days of a turn-of-the-century Parisian brothel play out languidly and stylishly in Bertrand Bonelli's period chamber piece with a modern edge.
American distributors may have decided that 'House of Pleasures' is a more easily marketable title than 'House of Tolerance', but it doesn't fit Bertrand Bonello's portrait of a fin-de-siecle Parisian brothel nearly as well. Because 'tolerate' is exactly what the prostitutes in this film do: they tolerate the whims of their rich gentleman clients, they tolerate their dependence on the mercenary (though not entirely unsympathetic) brothel madam, and they tolerate their confinement in their gilded cage.
Bonello captures all the glamour, monotony, uncertainty, exploitation and danger of brothel life. For every champagne bath or bejewelled gift, there's a psychopathic punter or a dose of syphilis to even things out. But what comes across most compellingly is the camaraderie between the women who live and work there. When they're not busy being humped dressed as dolls or having their 'sex' admired by artistically-inclined gentlemen, the women hang out together, moaning about their rubbish days and doing each others' hair in a way that's not unreminiscent of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice - except you'd be a bit surprised to hear Lizzie or Jane pondering whether or not they've caught the clap.
The attention to period detail is impressive, with the lavishness of the brothel's public spaces and the sparseness of the women's quarters all claustrophobically captured in richly-shadowed natural light. But in all other aspects the era is shot with modern flair, using split screens, flashbacks and flashforwards, occasional anachronistic excerpts of blues and pop songs, and an attention-deficit camera whose gaze wanders listlessly from girl to girl, giving a client's eye view of the action (or, more often than not, inaction).
A couple of events might score a bit too highly on the pretence-o-meter for some tastes - a scar-faced prostitute crying tears of sperm being one of them - but if you enjoyed the dreamlike pacing of Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, you'll probably like this.
Bertrand Bonello's atmospheric, poetic film seduces you with all the skill and subtlety of the courtesans it depicts. Though it should probably come with a pretentiousness warning for non-arthouse fans.
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