House of Pleasures: Welcome to Our French Brothel!

Set in the months before and after 1900, Bertrand Bonello's glamorously louche House of Pleasures projects nostalgia for the Paris bordello (as well as for those artists, Degas and Lautrec, who celebrated it). Bonello's posh maison close is a realm of beautifully dressed (and undressed) whores, alternately languid or high-spirited, if sadly victimized. Their johns are rich, their madam (Noémie Lvovsky) affable, and their house so respectable that a 15-year-old country girl writes to apply for a position. Kids cavort in the parlor where a client's tame panther lolls on a divan. Yet not everything is, as the subtitles memorably put it, simply "sperm and champagne." All the girls are in debt and vulnerable to syphilis. One john tricks the house Algerian (Hafsia Herzi) into reading a tract on the stupidity of prostitutes, while another slashes one girl so that her face is frozen in a perpetual hideous grin. Heaven or hell? Parisian brothels flourished in the '20s and remained open through World War II, but Bonello presents the new century as their decline. As her rent goes up, Madam is reduced to hosting special soirées at which rich geeks paw her indentured freaks. The filmmaker gives full vent to his romanticism by staging an End-of-the-Epoch party, with tearful sex workers dancing to "Nights in White Satin," then steps on the mood with yet another farewell fête, commemorating Bastille Day. The prisoners are free—to walk the streets. Ironic, no?

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