‘HOUSE OF PLEASURES’ 2/ NOTES ON SADE AND BIG CATS

This is part two of a two part series on ‘House of Pleasures’ (2011) by Bertrand Bonello. 

House of Pleasures also negotiates the morality of Sade.

Sade’s name comes up early: “My only books are Sade’s diaries, and the bible. And I haven’t read the bible,” says one prostitute.

To be coy about it, pain takes center stage only once, and stingingly. But the moment haunts the film as trauma.

Prostitution’s value comes from the individual’s transformation into pleasurable-object.

Pornography’s value comes from the individual’s image, and its transformation into pleasurable-object.

The prelude to the traumatic moment of pain includes a particularly Sade-ian yielding of power. A prostitute yields control, and allows herself to be tied up. She gives over her individual agency, in order to become an object.

Once an object, she no longer has the power to reject the agency of her customer. She has become a slave.

Then the customer takes pleasure in punishing her for her decision to become a pleasure-object.

But in Sade, there is no time for grieving; there is only the next pleasure, the next punishment.

In Bonello’s brothel, we dwell on the sufferer, as she travels back to the world transfigured, deformed.

She becomes an individual again soon enough, but her body has been damaged, and has become worthless in the economy of prostitution. Having been punished, she is no longer a suitable pleasure-object.

The film doubles back, and punishes the punisher. But the course of revenge is not as interesting as the poetry that here renders it.

One element of the brothel-as-fantasy-world: a panther, brought by one of the customers.

The panther haunts the film, waiting languidly on a sofa, watching impassively the alien world of people and pageantry and make-believe. This is nothing like the jungle, from which both man and panther, originally, spring.

I’m being broad because the film’s use of the panther is broad. It’s an apt symbol for the wilderness that pageantry (by which I mean both apparel and custom, neither necessarily period) can only attempt to cover.

The panther does not symbolize one act of punishment committed in one direction, but rather the beastly mode by which humans act when doors are closed and shades are drawn.

The physical House of Pleasures presents us with a paradox: an organized institution of commercial exchange, of extensive pageantry and custom, and a place designed to allow for man’s basest urges to be indulged, satisfied.

Bonello frames traditional period pageantry as being little more than the attempt to costume-away the selfish-pleasure drive that governs a lot of human behavior.

There are also women caught in the thick of this attempt at disguise.

And while they may attempt to find themselves in Sade (“…and I haven’t read the bible”) it’s not working.

It will never work, because their suffering is real. They see it in each other. In Sade, they are told their suffering is part of a natural flow, a currency of spectacle and consumption.

But Sade was writing pornography. A special kind of narrative pornography. A political pornography. Maybe even a moral pornography.

But the difference between the ideals of pornography and the realities of prostitution are so vast as to be intraversable.

Bonello’s work is presented as a missing link in this dialogue.

Bonello presents a moral depiction of prostitution, rendering the suffering, degradation, and danger of that trade. By rendering prostitution as prostitution, he offers to his characters an escape. They see in each other, maybe, what we see in the film.

Sade depicted one type of prostitution legendarily, as a myth, with only one character rendered morally (the pleasure-taker, the object-user, the rapist.)

Bonello renders the victims morally, thus offering some kind of balance.

And no such balance existed, at the time his film was set.

-Max Berwald

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