Netflix certainly does offer up an awful lot of tripe for my viewing pleasure, from insisting that I really would like to watch Hemlock Grove to repeatedly listing Keeping Up with the Kardashians under Strong Female Lead. So, you may understand my trepidation when House of Pleasures kept on popping up under various categories. What a pleasant surprise then when it turned out that the film wasn’t remotely terrible.
Confusingly the film was originally called L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close in its native France, but distributed in the UK as the more accurate translation of House of Tolerance while America went for House of Pleasures. Because… prostitutes?
We’re taken into the world of an up-market brothel in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. And it really is that, this building is their entire world. With the exception of one sequence that sees the women of the house lounging in a park under their employer’s supervision, the film stresses that they would only have been able to leave the brothel’s confines for an excursion with a client.
Everything is ground down into a daily routine of sleeping, waiting, dressing, waiting, clients, and yet more waiting. A sense of oppressive boredom permeates the lives of these characters, but unlike many shoe-gazing indie films I could mention this didn’t transfer across to me. The strength of the acting talent on display from the ensemble cast kept me with the story, helped along by the nonlinear editing and hallucinatory flares.
Mama they call her bad girl,
all because she wanted to be free
So goes the incongruous soul number Bad Girl that closes the film. But these aren’t the fallen damsels with a heart of gold or the temptresses leading men astray that you might have expected, just women whose financial circumstances and opportunities led them to the House of Tolerance. They’re under no illusions about their situation or of finding a happy ending, openly acknowledging that they’re only circling down into further debt under the care of the brothel’s Madam. Not a happy ending, but maybe a truthful one.