Brothel films are like submarine movies—the stories, the dramas, even the details always remain the same, held in a airtight container as if observing variations of the same scientific experiment. The challenge for the filmmaker is not invention, but sensibility in provoking these variations. Many characterizations of Bertrand Bonello’s L'apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close), known as House of Pleasures for it's US release, and set in the eponymous brothel at the “twilight” of the 19th century and “dawn” of the 20th, could be applied across an entire genre: the chambered mise-en-scène, the opiated, muffled tone; even dramas amongst the girls, too: debts, love, violence, fetishism, a new girl, disease. Yet there is something else here, mysterious, practically intangible within the confines both of the brothel and the genre, something that leaves the film a lingering quality like smoke left hanging in a vacated room, traces, ghosts, remnants.
It’s in the mise-en-scène, calling up Hawks in coverage and Hou in feel and pace; it’s in the camera’s allegiance to the girl’s faces, sad, distant, actorly, abstracted even in laughter. It’s in the strange stylized gestures of the film, the declamatory title cards marking the turn of the century, periodic temporal jitters, moving forward and backward in time unmotivated, the intrusion of 1960s pop—calling to mind another end of an epoch film, Garrel’s Regular Lovers—and in a startling concluding jump to low-grade digital video.
Above all, L’apollonide is a sympathetic film, not just to suffering, oppression, bitterness, exploitation—again, common appearances within film conventions of brothels—but, more precisely, caring for this space of girlhood, sexuality, friendship, femininity and love confined and artificial, every relationship, setting and shot defined by its association within this lavish, decadent house of prostitution. It is in this patient, caring sympathy, laid out in Bonello’s relaxed pacing and direction of supreme attentiveness to the actresses, that L’apollonide achieves its melancholy strangeness and curiosity, moving it, as if in a trance, beyond the basic needs of genre, and leaving something dark behind in its wake.
This review originally appeared in our coverage for the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.