Dennis Lim opens his profile of Bertrand Bonello in the New York Times by noting that the filmmaker "has a term for movies that take place in a single setting: brain films. 'I call them that because the location is like your brain,' Mr Bonello said. 'It's like when you go inside a theater or a cinema, and you shut the door: the outside doesn't exist anymore. Very quickly you allow yourself a lot of associations of ideas. You get lost, and you come back, geographically but also mentally.' Think, he said, of The Shining, which evokes claustrophobia within the vastness of an empty snowbound hotel, or Elephant, which circles the endless corridors of a doomed high school. A kindred atmosphere of simultaneous immersion and disorientation defines Mr Bonello's fifth feature, House of Pleasures, which is set almost entirely within a brothel in fin de siècle Paris. A world unto itself, it plays multiple roles in this fever dream of a movie: a place of business ('Shall we have commerce?' goes the standard opening formality), a locus of fantasy (Champagne baths, a live panther on the sofa), a prison, a salon, a stage. Called L'Apollonide when it had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie initially bore the English title House of Tolerance but has been renamed by IFC Films."
Melissa Anderson for Artforum: "In its focuses on what happens inside, both spatially and anatomically — 'Men never look into the sex of women enough,' one labia minora-loving john attests — House of Pleasures details the downtime and pre-commerce rituals the Apollonide's workers share. These relaxed scenes of bathing, dressing, sleeping, and eating crucially foreground the loose camaraderie among the cosseted, corseted prisoners. Bonello shows such compassion and respect for his characters that his decision to graphically — and unnecessarily — depict the gruesome disfigurement of Madeleine (Alice Barnole), who recounts to her client a bizarre dream before she is attacked, stings sharply. And yet even this momentary betrayal is ameliorated by Bonello's outré special effects: Right before the Apollonide's red light is extinguished for good, Madeleine, just as she did in her reverie, cries tears of cum."
"Not many films have ever approached the possibilities afforded by the slippery subjectivity of cinematic time so directly, or with such intelligence," argues Phil Coldiron in Slant. "An obvious fact: From the very first cut, the cinema's project of overcoming time has endured, only varying in the intensity of its discoveries. One finds it no less in the montage of Porter and Griffith, where time was first made to double back to meet the demands of the space of the movie screen, than in the discrete durations of Roberto Rossellini or Max Ophüls, where the triangular relationship between the shot, filmic convention, and the continuity of lived experience was exploited to achieve a sort of synecdochal forgery-representation of time. Bonello's achievement in House of Pleasures continues the line of inquiry set in motion by Hou Hsiao-hsien's films of the 1990s, a synthesis of the aforementioned dominant strains that's then extended being triangulated itself with our, i.e., each individual member of the audience's, conception of history."
"House of Pleasures is lush and languid to the point of creating something like an opium-induced dream state from which neither it nor the viewer ever fully awakens," writes Michael Nordine at Hammer to Nail, "but it's also quite remarkable for the way it manages to alarm without resorting to hyperbole. It lets us drift into a deep sleep, but uses seminal fluid and references to Marquis de Sade as nightmare fuel — literally, in the case of the former. (The other literary allusions, to the Bible and The War of the Worlds, combine to form something like a holy-unholy triumvirate.) There are several unexplained incidents and recurring dreams suffused with dread, and often what most matters isn't the happenings themselves so much as the mood they evoke. Bonello's film is a tapestry of desire and melancholy as velvety as it is withdrawn: we're allowed more intimacy than the customers, but the women nevertheless exist in a state of remove which only adds to their mystique."
More from Richard Brody (New Yorker), Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), David Fear (Time Out New York, 3/5), J Hoberman (Voice), Elise Nakhnikian (L) and Scott Tobias (AV Club, A-). Earlier: Daniel Kasman and the Ferroni Brigade.
Update, 11/28: (Viewing 23'40"). Blake Williams interviews Bonello for Ioncinema.