“House of Pleasures”: Carnal Film Embraces Contradictions

Early on in Bertrand Bonello's haunting, darkly gorgeous new film, House of Pleasures, a client of the titular turn-of-the-20th-century brothel calls The War of the Worlds, the book he's just read,”idiotic but pure genius.” That a “guilty” pleasure can have profound weight is a fact embodied by Bonello's movie, which was dismissed as porn by many at Cannes, and reclaimed as a misunderstood masterpiece by others at Toronto last September. The story gets going when Madeline (Alice Barnole), known around the House as “the Jewess,” confesses to a regular date a dream she's had about him, which combines a boilerplate whore's rescue fantasy with a surreal vision of visceral, all-consuming sexual pleasure. The client rewards her for her confession by disfiguring her face with a pocketknife. Bonello then skips ahead in time, exploring the house's other residents, whose poles are represented by Clotilde (Céline Sallette), an opium addict who increasingly hopes to turn a regular into a husband; and Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), an ambitious 15-year-old new girl who prefigures the feminist self-commodification of the late 20th century. The women are essentially indentured slaves to their madam; they're also a family of workers living together in solidarity. IFC Films is pushing this as cult fodder, on the basis of its ample nudity and judicious graphic violence. I wish them luck in luring purely prurient audiences into a moody, literate, highly complicated genre-fuck.

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