My Tears Were White, Like Milk: House of Pleasures (2011)

Thanks once again to the guys over at Battleship Pretension for turning me onto a film that I would otherwise completely overlooked from 2011.  In this case, it is the French period piece titled House of Pleasures (Tolerance), which as you may have guessed focuses on life in a brothel, specifically one at the beginning of the 19th century in France.  While it may sound as this is the formula for an incredibly exploitative film, it is all but that and is instead an incredibly focused, cinematic and atmospheric study of a lifestyle and experience that is often relegated to the bizarre and profane in historical narratives.  With moments that are incredibly Kubrickian style, a contemporary soundtrack and a complete refusal to shy away from depicting the more unflattering moments of life in a brothel, House of Pleasures is sincere in what it is trying to depict.  It is important to note that the film was independently produced and eventually picked up by IFC, allowing for it to be unfiltered in its depictions, most importantly in the sexual elements of the narrative.  Bertrand Bonello's film is at times sobering, at others revelatory, but never uninteresting.  Including an excellent set of actresses, of various races and ages, House of Pleasures may well be one of the most politically correct films, about one of the more socially unacceptable topics.  More importantly, House of Pleasures stands out as one of the most beautiful films shot in 2011 and has knocked yet another film off of my previous list of my favorite films of last year, now only losing to Take Shelter and Tree of Life.  It is truly a tragedy that his film did not receive more hype, here is to hoping that at least one more person reads this post and discovers the film.

House of Pleasures focuses on the experiences of a group of women living in a brothel together, as they attempt to gain independence, while also paying off their debts to the madame of the house Marie-France (Noemie Lvovsky) who engages in the business as a means to provide for her two children.  While it is clear that Marie-France is not completely fair in her dealings with the prostitutes, she is considerably maternal to each of the women working there.  The head woman, of sorts, is Madeleine (Alice Barnole), also known as The Jewess, and she becomes the cook and maid to the other women after a tragic act of aggression by a client leaving her with a smile-like scar on her face.  Her dream from the night she was attacked becomes a point of reference throughout the film as the other girls engage in acts with various customers, most notably the woman known as The Doll, who literally acts as though she is a doll for clients and the Algerian who is often chosen by men for her foreign features. The narrative also focuses on the emersion of a new girl named Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) who is fifteen and seeks the brothel as a means to escape a dismal home life.  Covering every element of the brothel life, viewers are shown the general assembly of women as they wait for clients, as well as the more grim act of testing each woman for venereal diseases.  The film crashes climactically into one party scene, in which the women engage in an orgiastic encounter that includes masked lovers, animals and even Madeleine, scar and all.  Ultimately, the film closes with Madeleine recounting her dreams as milky white tears fall from her face.  The scene that follows completely throws the narrative off-kilter, but still manages to capture an inherent beauty in the film beyond explanation.

This narrative, as was the case with 8 Women, focuses on the experiences of a group of women in France that are to some degree voiceless.  However, avoiding the comedic, Bonello's film is sobering in its reality and brutality.  Often depicting multiple scenes at once it reminds viewers about how truly degrading and dark brothel life was in a time where sexuality and femaleness were not a thing of simultaneous power.  EAch woman is objectified within the film, whether it be the literal doll-like behavior of one girl, or the exoticization of women of color within the film, it is clear that they are assumed to be lesser than a male.  We are to assume that these women seek their own individual existence and find this to be the quickest avenue for their desires, however, the reality of the situation is that their desires are, ultimately, made a point of exploitation as they serve men who see them only as objects of  sexual gratification, which they can poor champagne over or sexually oppress as they see fit.  In the most problematic scenario, men can even act out their latent aggression on the women, as is the case with Madeleine's suitor and his knife/phallic attack, which permanently cripples her, in the sense she can no longer work within her normal brothel job.  House of Pleasures, however, never condemns these women for their actions, instead; it offers the argument that they were simply trying to find their own route to freedom in the only method they knew, something that is perfectly and poetically realized in the films closing scene.

Key Scene: The few times that Bonello uses a split screen are quite intense and add to the full element of the film's ambient existence

Netflix managed to pick this up on watch instantly, and as far as I can tell their are no plans to release it on blurry, so it may suit you to see it via Netflix before it falls into obscurity.

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