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Brain films: Bertrand Bonello's film L'Apollonide; "House of Pleasures", "House of Tolerance"

He wrestled with the question of how to portray what happens in the private chambers. "Sex scenes in a brothel are so expected that they could be very boring," he said. "I went much more into theater, fetishism, a kind of play." Masks and mirrors are ubiquitous; one prostitute mimics a marionette, while another dresses as a geisha and speaks pidgin Japanese. "These things can tell you more about power relationships than a faked sex scene," he added.

Extending the metaphor of brothel as theater, he likened the madam in "House of Pleasures" to a director committed to putting on a nightly show and consumed by the logistics and economics of doing so. (She is played by the director and actress NoƩmie Lvovsky, and many of the customers are also played by filmmaker friends, including Xavier Beauvois and Jacques Nolot.)

From the fablelike opening line -- a prostitute murmurs, "I'm so tired, I could sleep for a thousand years" -- to the jolting epilogue in present-day Paris, "House of Pleasures" amounts to a riff on the adage about prostitution being the oldest profession. Mr. Bonello compounds this sense of timelessness with soundtrack choices that could be called anachronistic, starting with his own minimal electronic score. (A trained classical composer, he writes his own music, and, in lieu of rehearsals, gives his actors CD mixes.) After one of the women dies of syphilis, her grieving friends hum the melody to the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and then slow-dance to the Moody Blues ballad "Nights in White Satin."

While his new film has earned Mr. Bonello his best reviews in France (and a spread in French Vogue), there was some hostility from the English-language press in Cannes, even an accusation of "cruelty porn" from a British paper. His detractors complain about sexual violence: In "Tiresia" (2003), a transgender prostitute is blinded before becoming an oracle (as in the Greek myth), and in "House of Pleasures" one woman is the victim of a horrific face slashing. But Mr. Bonello said he never resorts to gore for shock value. "I show some things because it's necessary to understand the pain," he said. "I'm never doing it casually."

What Do Courtesans Do by Day?
Published: November 18, 2011
"House of Pleasures," by the French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello, is set in a turn-of-the-20th-century French brothel, a place of business and a locus of fantasy.


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