MPI // 2011 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 6th, 2012
A turn-of-the-century brothel becomes an unlikely bastion of loyalty.
The brothel as a place is a very interesting development in human sexuality. As resourceful teenagers demonstrate today, sex can be had anywhere. Yet, from ancient Greece to today, brothels exist. Since it's not just about sexual satisfaction (otherwise sex would -- and does -- happen elsewhere), there must be something special about the brothel as a place to make it so resilient. Something about the hedonistic atmosphere must appeal to both the workers and the customers. The feeling of decadence, sensuality, and abandon found in the brothel is special, and House of Pleasures attempts to capture that atmosphere as it's about to disappear. Like the house of pleasure of its title, the film recognizes that while viewers may come for the sex and sexuality, they'll stay for decadence and atmosphere. By offering simmering sexuality inside a package of drama and visual splendor, House of Pleasures becomes more than just another film about sex.
It's the turn of the twentieth century, and it's the final days for a Parisian brothel. Madame Marie-France runs a very tight ship, providing pleasure to the best of Paris. The ladies she employs run the gamut from experience professionals to fresh-faced young ladies. They share their collective pain in the waning days of a decadent age.
It's called House of Pleasures, it's French, and there's a half-naked woman on the cover. Obviously, many, many people are going to be drawn to this film for the sexuality/sensuality. They would not be wrong. There are a number of attractive women of various ages and shapes in a number of different kinds of dress and undress. Though House of Pleasures is far from porn, those looking for a film filled with sensuality and sexuality won't be disappointed by either the story or the ladies who inhabit it.
However, to approach House of Pleasures as only a film about sex -- especially if you dismiss the film as yet another soft-core excuse to show naked women -- is to miss the point entirely. This is a serious costume drama that features strong characters and an interesting arc for everyone involved in the brothel. More importantly for me, the film absolutely mimics the situation in the brothel, which is to say that while sex might be the main attraction, atmosphere is everything. Everything from the performances, to the costumes and the set dressing of the brothel all reinforce a sumptuous, decadent atmosphere. Even with all the nudity cut out of the film, House of Pleasures would still be a visual feast.
This DVD is almost as sumptuous as the titular House of Pleasures. Every single detail of the incredible set design and costume work comes through clearly on this 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Color rendition is spot-on, with flesh tones pleasingly warm. Black levels aren't as deep as I'd like, but contrast overall is strong. The French surround audio is similarly detailed. The dialogue is clean and clear from the center channel, while music envelopes the viewer from the surround channels.
There are two main extras on this disc. The first is a collection of casting footage for the various ladies in the film, and that footage is compared with their actual performances from the film. It's an interesting comparison to make, though the acting in a foreign language is often hard to judge. There's also a featurette called "Prologue: From Writing to Editing" where director Bertrand Bonello follows a particular scene from conception to finished product, giving us insights into his thought processes along the way. There's nothing hugely revelatory in either featurette, but they're a fine compliment to the feature. Finally, we get the film's trailer.
Of course, those who show up for House of Pleasures looking just for soft-core thrills will probably be disappointed by everything that makes the film great. The time spent nurturing characters, the elaborate visual style, and the lack of regular sex scenes could certainly be a negative for some viewers. Even those who aren't explicitly looking for a sexual film might be disappointed by the somewhat languid pace the two-hour film takes in exploring the world of the brothel. Obviously, it should almost go without saying, but those opposed to nudity and sex will find very little to enjoy. House of Pleasures lives up to its title. Whether you're searching for a film that has an erotic atmosphere or looking for a period drama with some pizzazz, there are pleasures aplenty to be had with this beautiful film.
Judge the ladies of the night all you like, House of Pleasures is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated