Here's one of those films from IFC that on a first glimpse could have been truly awful in its story telling or awfully melodramatic in not telling a story. Having just based my decision on reviewing the DVD by glimpsing the cover art and watching the trailer I was basing my final outcome on those two factor alone. I chose wisely.
House of Pleasures (aka L'Apollonide Souvenirs de la maison close) is a turn of the century (1899-1900) tale about the last days of a Parisian brothel and the prostitutes that work there. The film follows them in a linear and not so linear narrative. We are given their names, but it's almost irrelevant, because names don't really matter in a film like this. The women function as a single autonomous unit, like a collective of sorts.
Early on in the film we start with one of the beautiful women telling one of her clients one of her dreams before cutting to a somewhat random scene and then to the opening credits done in a black and white collage with Bad Girl by Lee Moses playing over it. It's a bit jarring, but done with such classy and elegant style that it works. In fact, most of the character introductions are done in foreshadowing, because by the end of the film all of their individual story arcs come full circle even though the film is not set that way in the beginning. It's a testament to director Bertrand Bonello's skill.
I thought all the actresses cast as these prostitutes with no future outside the brothel did a great job in conveying their emotions onscreen. They're happy when they're together, they're sad together; they're scared together, etc. It's the ultimate film about female solidarity that I have seen in a long time.
One can also say that the film has that certain fly-on-the-wall characteristic, because there are many scenes in which the viewer is given the grand tour of the house and its inhabitants along with what they do every single moment of the day. That's literally how the film is framed. We see what the women do when they wake, bathe, get ready for their client's arrival, and even during doctor's examination. In essence they're prisoners of their own profession. They are not allowed to leave the home without the headmistress or guardian to accompany them otherwise they will be arrested for prostitution. Prostitution seems to be legal here as long as the sex and women stay indoors. If you're a man, well, you've got it good, because you won't get arrested.
I liked the film a whole lot and not just for selfish reasons (like the beautiful women), because it's an overall solid story about women who work to survive in a most unsavory world all the while backing each other up through thick and thin. There is a lot of heartache, abuse, and violence that these women have to face on a daily basis and they all back each others' play.
House of Pleasures is also a very lush and stylish film in its own right. Even if you see and hate the film you will no doubt appreciate the aesthetics. From the costumes, to the make-up, production design and so forth, there is a lot of eye-candy to be had. I hope you'll enjoy the film as much as I did. I should insert a line about how I wish this was on Blu-ray, but I won't. Wink.
House of Pleasures is presented in 480p (upscaled to 1080p) - 1.85:1 widescreen. The settings are beautiful, the costume design lush and all this do come through with exquisite detail except when it comes to contrast levels. They seem to have been boosted just a bit. Black levels in certain areas are also not as dark as they should be. Edge enhancement is also sporadic, but then again this is a standard DVD we are talking about. The color palette when indoors is very muted and subdued, but brightens up when the women are outside by the lake. Colors are very bright and have pop to them. Grain levels remain steady throughout the entire feature and flesh tones stay balanced and natural.
House of Pleasures is presented in French Dolby Digital 5.1 with English subtitles. House of Pleasures rocks the brothel, so to speak. Dialogue is sharp and engaging, music envelopes the room and during scenes of the more contemporary tunes used the vocals stay centered and never deviate from their position. Ambience is kept in check, but it's really cool when you can hear footsteps and chatter in the background through the rear channels. The house is almost a character of its own. Considering the type of film this is (the non-bombastic type) I will go ahead and give it a reference stamp of approval in the audio department.
House of Pleasures contains a couple of extras worthy of note. There's some audition footage with some of the lovely ladies from the film with side-by-side comparisons of the finished scenes in the movie. They're pretty spot-on. There's a second featurette that is more of a deconstruction of a scene with writer-director Bertrand Bonello in which he explains how he goes about editing certain scenes and how they change during the many script revisions and during actual filming. Both featurettes are pretty awesome. A theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
Final Thoughts: House of Pleasures was a trip of a film. It clocks in at roughly two hours without the credits, but should keep you interested throughout. Who would have thought that an actual story about turn-of-the-century prostitutes would be this fascinating and entertaining? I didn't, because I figured it would be a film about hot women and nothing more. It's much deeper than that and I'm glad that my generalization was squashed early on; because House of Pleasures is one of the best films I have seen this year on DVD.