When Edouard Manet unleashed his “Olympia” upon the world in 1863, the aesthetic conventions that had previously held art together were suddenly, violently flouted. A turning point for Impressionism, this oil-painted portrait depicts a fully nude, voluptuous courtesan supine on a bed. Previous paradigms of female beauty were jettisoned in the figure of “Olympia,” and what emerged was a distinctly modern picture of femininity that foretold shifts in art theory and gender politics.
Pure cinema on a grand scale, “House of Pleasures” boasts a similarly subversive performance. Director Bertrand Bonello uses New Wave techniques like split screen, chiasmatic repetition and anachronistic music to take us deeply, unapologetically, into the world of high-class prostitutes in a high-class bordello during fin-de-siecle France. If anything can be said for this sumptuous, perverse “House” of visual pleasures, it’s that there’s nothing quite like it. No longer does the belle epoch seem so belle after all.
The women populating the brothel are not the glass-encased beauties we would imagine: These are women of the flesh, in every sense of the word. They include Madeleine (Alice Barnole), whose face is disfigured by a client; a new girl not quite 16 named Pauline (Iliana Zabeth); the exotic Algerian Samira (Hafsia Herzi) and the tough-love madam of the house Marie-France (Noemie Lvovsky).
During the day, they are bored and listless. They sleep late, often in the same bed, and wait for clients to appear. They lounge about, smoking opium and fingering the rims of champagne flutes to make music. A domesticated black panther lies in the salon, which suggests dark forces afoot. These women maintain a tenuous façade for their bestial clients, but after business hours, they are exhausted and love-starved. “Fucking’s a fuck awful job,” says one of the girls. “I’d just like someone to give me a hug,” another says. They are decidedly modern women, what you might call feminists.
Bonello elegantly reinvents our received ideas of turn-of-the-century France through formal intrepidity and by mining the dark temperaments of his characters. With the exception of two scenes, these women never leave the maison, and that kind of isolation is what makes people go mad. The final shot, which takes to the streets of Paris, situates the film in an entirely new political context. Nothing has been done quite like this since the last frames of Ari Folman’s 2008 “Waltz with Bashir,” an animated documentary about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Folman’s last shot was constructed from real life archival footage of Lebanese victims. “Bonello does something similar, but I won’t spoil it because that would divest the film of its power.
The surface beauty of this film, and of its women, is quickly shattered by the desperate lives they live beneath. As the 19th century came to a close, and modernity loomed, the role of women seemed to be changing, for better or worse, and no longer did those champagne flutes make the sound of music.
“House of Pleasures” plays at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema (1746 Post Street in Japantown) through Thursday. For showtimes and ticket prices, visit http://www.sffs.org/cinema.
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.