Atmosphere, nostalgia, and media commentary in HOUSE OF PLEASURES

HOUSE OF PLEASURES, airs Saturday night at 12:15A (with an encore on Tuesday) and takes us deep into the private life of a French maison close, a turn of the century brothel catering to wealthy and picky clients. It’s a rich, atmospheric, slow film that joins a long list of venerable and illustrious entries in the genre; we have a collective social fascination with sex work and are particularly interested in period pieces that allow us to indulge our voyeurism without the immediacy of looking at the modern sex industry head-on. Like other films of its ouvre, it presents a simultaneously rosy and jaded view of sex work, creating a tension on the screen that may evade some viewers.

This is a film with an impeccably rich setting; the costumes, sets, and camerawork are stellar, taking us deep into a dreamy, private world that is kept separate from reality in many senses. Provocative images familiar from the genre come up repeatedly; women lounging half-naked in seductive poses, lining up for physical examinations by a doctor, interacting with their clients. This casts a nostalgic light on sex work and the women of the era, as well as romanticizing the reality of being a woman in this era.

At the same time, we also see violent encounters with clients, and the characters fall into very familiar sex worker tropes; the woman who just wants to become respectable, the dreamer, the woman with the ruined face, the madam who ultimately depends on men for her survival. HOUSE OF PLEASURES, like many period films, seems to struggle with the idea of sexual, financial, and social autonomy for women outside of the sex industry of the time, yet at the same time suggests that even sex workers weren’t as autonomous as they thought they were. The courtesans of the film become tragic figures immured in a gilded cage, waiting for a freedom they’ll never find because of their choice of employment and their gender.

Is this luscious narrative the story of the dynamics among a group of women, or another entry in a long lines of film that position sex workers as the other and presents sex work through a lens of nostalgia, moral qualms, and romantic notions? Can it be both? The relationships between the women of HOUSE OF PLEASURES are very real and complex, even as their setting and framing feel staged and artificial at times. How much the film says about the true life of sex workers in Paris at the turn of the 20th century is debatable, but it makes for a fascinating exploration of the bonds and tensions between women, and the stresses that can emerge in close quarters.

It’s also a stunning and undeniably beautiful film that unabashedly explores the depiction of women and sex work in art and history. Many of the scenes look more like staged paintings than film while the soundtrack, lighting and sets all conspire to draw you into the narrative while shining a lens on the movie’s subtle commentary.