This post is part one of a two part series on ‘House of Pleasures’ (2011) by Bertrand Bonello.
Equally obsessed with the stripping away of pageantry, and with its authentic exhibition, Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures offers itself as a shining entry into the new international art house as well as a period gem. It’s not a puzzle film but a dream film, one that you can’t write-off on charges of austerity, stuffiness or thoughtless lyricism. Bonello’s camera endlessly circles, frames and reframes, the spaces in a turn of the century (1900) brothel in Paris. The girls who sell their bodies therein are an intensely insular family unit, and Bonello’s compassion for them is only tempered by his singular unwillingness to let them be defined by their suffering.
I could talk forever about the spaces in this film. We almost never leave the interior of the brothel. Twice, I think, and briefly. But the cameras approach to these very finite spaces are some balance between the repeating, and the infinitely new. We’re given a repeating track-forward, down a hallway, as a spatial backbone. There are also tableaux, each an attempt to capture the girls as a full-fledged unit, a living breathing creature somehow more than the sum of all its individuals. But on the whole…
…the movie favors closer and closer shooting. The last twenty-minutes offer up long sequences built on close-ups, faces turning in and out of mask, coming in and out of lush focus and golden light, each close-up becoming a world unto itself. Besides technical close-ups, I also mean close-ups defined oppositionally to shots that describe, reveal, or penetrate real/physical space. So, while there are plenty of drifting medium-shots and medium close-ups, they all act to obscure the space rather than reveal it. Put another way:
Bonello’s close-ups frequently obliterate the wider spaces that precede them, forging new squares of unapologetically digital shallow-focus where cotton and lace turn and touch flesh, humans flickering between character and texture, between furniture and the suffering soul’s we know them to be. Maybe this is a premonition of a “compassionate digital” gaze: one that will reveal to us the threat of its own neutrality, and then allow us to forget long enough to erect big and real characters, protrusions from the wasteland of cold (albeit only superficially) reality-recording.
Although I will say of this coldness: the turns of heads, in close-up, begin to remind us that this world, although it has been gobbled up by the past, was as real as any of ours.
Maybe less than other period films, this one really does seem to be about the past. That’s not to say that it doesn’t comment on the present, or carve out an awful lot of commentary on the present, but you can’t work so attentively to humanize the barely-free prostitute of Belle Epoque Paris without wallowing in the period a bit. There’s a present-ness to the past in this film that should be savored. Which brings us, again, back to the photography.
The film’s digital photography and digital aesthetics have not been lauded as a radical new way of “seeing” period action unfold, as was Michael Mann’s Public Enemies was in 2009. I think this is more because of the time elapsed than anything else. Then, digital was a radical choice that could be read as a comment on the material.
Now, it’s a more natural choice. I will say that the effect is similar. One reads, all of the sudden, the pageantry as a reality. The clothes that were once glowing under the fuzzy, broken-in nostalgia of 35mm, now are rendered sharply, crisply, freshly as clothes that, yes, may not have been that comfortable to wear.
Their (the costumes’) stripping-off (the “bodice ripping”) becomes itself a subject worthy of contemplation: people offering their bodies with such regularity that the erotic negotiation of pleasure is reduced inevitably to transaction. “Shall we have commerce?” is here an invitation to bed.