House Of Pleasures (France, 2011), Sleeping Beauty (Australia, 2011), Shame (U.K., 2011)
Any time there’s a small salvo of serious movies about sexuality and/or prostitution, I can’t help but compare them to Luis Buñuel’s 1967 ‘Belle De Jour,’ his wonderfully thoughtful, dreamlike and funny exploration of how men and women reconcile their ‘civilized’ relationships, the give and take of gender politics, and the baser, more primal instincts that perpetually vex, or inform, the other two. It’s the tale of Severine (Catherine Deneuve), who has just married a handsome doctor in what would seem to be an idyllic marriage. But Severine is terrified of consummating – she even insists they sleep in twin beds. Nonetheless, she’s haunted by sado-masochistic dreams, and when she learns that a married mutual acquaintance is leading a secret second life as a prostitute, she takes the plunge herself. Buñuel’s depiction of Severine, her clients, her working situation, and the divergences between her shame and her sexual awakening, covers an enormous range of cultural, psychosexual, and psychoanalytical territory in a surrealistic context that never really allows us to pin down what’s real and what’s simply Severine’s fantasy/dream life. It’s a dissertation-worthy masterpiece.
Directors who try to portray these issues in highly stylized, fairly unrealistic ways, in order to create a comfortable distance, run the risk of not making real, identifiable emotional connections with the very audience they want to connect with. But overly realistic, earnest explorations of those same issues can be just as alienating, if not seeming downright silly (this is superficially interesting, but it has nothing to do with me). The depiction of real, physical sex between two people, generated from real, believable emotions, is one of the toughest things in the world for a film audience to suspend its disbelief about. In some ways, that’s too bad – sex-positive people are some of filmed erotica’s most ardent defenders – if it’s warts-and-all, psychologically messy, it can be cathartic; if it’s fantasy sex that could never really happen in our day-to-day lives, that can be cathartic too, for entirely different reasons. But in many ways, our discomfort, or distancing humor, about it simply reflects our own fear and reticence about addressing these issues clearly and unselfconsciously in our own real lives. And that’s a can of worms that no artist is going to solve from their own personal perspective no matter how much style or intelligence they bring to bear. I think Bernardo Bertolucci has come closest – ‘Last Tango In Paris’ and ‘The Dreamers,’ I feel, are both admirably serious, well-structured movies with credible, interesting people we come to care about, that prominently interweave serious sexual issues into their overall narratives. But people are lining up, as we speak, to tell me what pretentious pieces of Euro-trash crap those movies are. Needless to say, it’s pretty subjective.
One of the interesting dichotomies of ‘Belle Du Jour’ is Severine’s emotional devotion to her husband. She loves him, and will never leave him, but goes elsewhere to deal with longings she doesn’t necessarily understand but chooses to fulfill nonetheless. In Bertrand Bonello’s period drama House Of Pleasures (L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la Maison Close)) (France, 2011), the prostitutes therein were recruited, or hired away from other houses, well before any of those domestic considerations ever became an issue. Clothilde (Céline Sallette) has been there for 12 years, and is still well under 30. Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), who’s just turning 16, has written a letter to the Madame of the house, Marie-France (Noémie Lvovsky), asking to be hired, expressing her admiration for L’Apollonide’s classy reputation, and accompanied by a note of permission from her parents. Many of the other girls are in their late teens or early twenties: Samira, the Algerian exotic (Hafzia Herzi), Léa (Adele Haenel), whose specialty is her doll/automaton guise, Julie (Jasmine Trinca), who’s blessedly discreet about how she acquired her nickname ‘Caca,’ and Madeleine, the Jewess (Alice Barnole), whose lovely face has recently been disfigured by a particularly sadistic client (she’s renamed ‘The Woman Who Laughs,’ a reference to the great Conrad Veidt silent movie ‘The Man Who Laughs;’ Heath Ledger’s Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ pays the same homage). The only quest for fulfillment these women are on is the one that feeds them, keeps a roof over their head, and gives them the opportunity to create their own independent lives when they decide to retire. Working in the lush, well-appointed L’Apollonide is uniformly assumed to be a vastly better fate for them than prosaic ‘honest’ labor or consigning themselves to a practical marriage. L’Apollonide is one of many houses of ‘tolerance’ in turn-of-the-19th-century Paris, and despite its gorgeous furnishings and the upscale indulgences of its clientele, it’s struggling to compete with its contemporaries. And, as Marie-France calculates her expenses, and assesses her workers a seemingly fair share of the costs, they, like any other workers, can’t help but feel that they’re selling their soul to the company store.
Bonello’s film rarely leaves the interiors of L’Apollonide – when the women treat themselves to a rare day out, it’s in a secluded woods, completely removed from the rest of the world. Their giddy relief is profound, as short-lived as it may be. Women are only allowed to leave the house with Marie-France or another man, it’s explained, otherwise they’ll be immediately nicked for solicitation. The film, then, chronicles their day-to-day lives, using the day to prepare for the evening, using the evening to indulge their customers and earn their livelihood, and sleeping it off to start the workmanlike day once again. They must keep themselves scrupulously clean, maintain their own wardrobes and cosmetics, and avail themselves of the hairdressers, and gynecologists, provided to them by Marie-France. They form solid friendships and firm allegiances to each other, and have a skeptical yet not-unaffectionate regard for their clients. When Léa no longer wishes to see a client, she sends a polite letter and encloses snippings of her pubic hair; she helps Pauline hurriedly wash up after she’s bathed in champagne with an earlier client. Samira does card readings to tell the fortunes of her compatriots. Madeleine, no longer available to the regular clientele, cooks, cleans, and devotedly assists the girls. When one of the girls contracts syphilis from a client she has genuinely liked and trusted, she confesses to the other girls that she misses him nonetheless. Far from idealized fantasy figures, sexual therapists or gold-digging opportunists, they are simply another manner of honest worker, with genuine responsibility and pride towards their labors, and vague but hopeful notions of where their earnest efforts might lead later.
I really liked this movie – for a male director, Bertrand Bonello has fostered a superb acting ensemble of irreproachably capable actresses, and it’s easy to sense that he and they are comfortable and cooperative in working with each other. Josée Deshaies’ cinematography and lighting are seamless and superb, and Bonello has collaborated well with editor Fabrice Rouaud to lend real temporal complexity to the narrative. At particular points of the film, flashbacks or motifs will double back on themselves, mirroring the repetitive nature of the daily grind, or the lingering emotional import of particular events (most notably Madeleine’s attack – again, he’s a regular customer whom Madeleine likes, and she relates an odd dream to him, vestiges of which echo throughout the film). He employs four-way split screen at times, and isn’t afraid to use boldly anachronistic music – mournful roadhouse blues, or even the weirdly appropriate ‘Nights In White Satin.’ I must warn you, however, that there’s one very quick but extremely disturbing shot in one of Madeleine’s flashbacks that, arguably, didn’t need to be indulged. Movieline’s Stephanie Zacharek, one of my favorite critics, has flatly stated that it ruined the entire movie for her. My reaction wasn’t so thoroughly damning for the whole of this otherwise admirable film, but I can’t disagree with Zacharek in the regard that I wish he hadn’t made that choice.
Bonello is relatively straightforward with who L’Apollonide’s women are, and the practicalities of their choices. Director Julia Leigh, in Sleeping Beauty (Australia, 2011) almost deliberately obscures the motivations of her protagonist, Lucy (Emily Browning, in an undeniably brave performance). In her press notes, Leigh repeatedly points to Lucy’s ‘radical passivity’ as the mental state from which she navigates her own life. Lucy doesn’t just submit to the wishes of her subsequent clients; she’s already relinquished a great deal of control over her own general fate to random circumstance. She does copying and clerical work for an office firm, she waits tables at a small café (although we only see her cleaning up at the end of her shifts, never interacting with customers), she’s a subject for medical research (which tests the particulars of her gag reflex – wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more…), and she turns the occasional trick for out-of-town businessmen at a downtown hotel – and yet still can’t pay the rent to her fellow student roommates. Whether her financial difficulties are real, or just a game she plays with her roommates, they nonetheless take a turn for the better – she answers an ad for “silver service” providers, a very exclusive set of female domestics who serve as waitstaff, in revealing lingerie or less, for a very exclusive, and indulgent, monied clientele. After proving herself adept and accommodating at that level, she’s promoted; the service she provides now involves being drugged into deep sleep for eight hours while the aging individual male clients are allowed to have their way with her, however they choose. The initial rule for the men (strictly enforced, somehow) is No Penetration Allowed, which is later amended to Leave No Marks, Either, after a particularly rough early session.
Lucy’s boss, or handler, or, let’s face it, pimp, is an elegant older blonde named Clara (Rachael Blake), who, while being very patient with, and kind to, Lucy, is obviously far more deferential, and interested, in her male clientele’s wants, needs, and faced fears. She dispenses Lucy’s drug as tea, and the short ritual is efficiently but delicately performed. Like Marie-France, she endeavors to create the safest possible environment for her employees, but it’s clear that the direct risks of the work are the girls’ own responsibility.
Julia Leigh hasn’t overtly made a film about sex – I think she’s made a film about the commoditization of everyday life, and how our submission to it becomes instinctual, rather than consciously chosen; at this point, the ethics or morality of it are no more germane than the ethics and morality of clothing or feeding ourselves, or sleeping, for Lucy or her clients. But her conception of Lucy as a model for that is, I think, deeply flawed. Emphasizing the sex and/or power aspects of the scenario raises a few more eyebrows, and certainly gets our attention, but Lucy’s choices elsewhere in the film, which I found to be far more intriguing, are given little if any import. She frequently visits an old friend called Birdmann, whose self-destructive substance issues are coyly hidden in plain sight. They’re intimate friends, but Lucy has chosen to withhold any deeper engagement with him. When he passes away, Lucy meets a mutual friend at Birdmann’s funeral. ‘Will you marry me?’ she forthrightly suggests. ‘Why now?’ he asks irritably. ‘You had your chance. Fuck you. I’m with Helen now. Helen is courteous. You should try it some time. Courtesy.’ Lucy is distanced, withholding, sometimes maliciously so, but we never get a sense of what she’s trying to protect or preserve; nor do we get a sense of her motivations on those few occasions where she chooses to give herself over entirely – if we don’t know what she values, then we don’t know what she’s relinquishing. When she’s given her first payment from Clara, she burns it. Does she always do this, or just here? Having been kicked out of her student apartment (because, presumably, she’s burning the rent instead of paying it), she rents a spacious and expensive apartment in a high-rise building downtown. When she turns tricks at the hotel, early in the film, she plays games about whether her favors will be withheld or not; but, later, the frankness and expediency with which she propositions a customer is both surprising and disheartening. The ‘I’m Submitting’ / ‘I’m In Charge’ signals get obscurely crossed, and we slowly get the idea that Lucy is just a vessel for Leigh’s own provocative but confused ideas; we tire quickly of the deck being so deliberately stacked against her, while Leigh struggles to convince us that it’s Lucy’s own nature. There’s far more relatable humanity in any one of five or six of Bertrand Bonello’s women, or even in Buñuel’s Severine, than Leigh is able to manage, at all, with Lucy. Leigh uses the transgressive ‘Sleeping Beauty’ gimmick, and the headlong fearlessness of Emily Browning’s performance, to reel us in, but the rest of her film is an untidy jumble of cautionary generalizations about women caught up in the paternal capitalist mill, either willfully or unwittingly.
At L’Apollonide, the women are a civilized indulgence the male clients can afford – the men are well-mannered, and even affectionate (and the one that wasn’t is dealt with in nasty fashion), but we’re also reminded that, ultimately, when things become too real, they’re sadly disposable. Lucy’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ clients are trying to retain their masculinity and a youthful, sensualist, intimate ideal that their bodies, and their lives’ experiences, will no longer support. In Shame (United Kingdom, 2011), we get a different story from the male point of view. Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a successful office-firm worker who is obviously well remunerated for his business smarts, alacrity with clients, and goodwill towards, and from, his co-workers. But at every slack moment, at work, or in the outside world, Brandon immerses himself in sex – pornography, pick-ups, prostitutes, internet video-chat, male hustlers; any port in a storm, and his whole life is the storm – sometimes he rides the waves gleefully, but mostly he’s terrified of drowning – but he needs the rush. We start to understand Brandon’s insatiable needs when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives and insinuates herself into his life; SPOILER ALERT – there have obviously been intimacies that they have shared in the past, but now regret – or, at least, he regrets them – but his proclivities henceforth have been driven by his need to duplicate the intimacy and intensity of that early experience. Like any addiction, whether it’s drugs or alcohol or, here, sex (and I’m in the camp that believes ‘sex addiction’ is an overly simplistic, reductive, inadequate phrase), Brandon is trying to reclaim that first feeling of panacea that accompanies the first few lines of coke, the first good happy-drunk benders, or, in this case, that first sexual connection with someone he can never possibly be that close to, that emotionally tied to, again. Hence, Brandon seeks out those feelings, but never lets feelings intrude on the search. For Sissy, it has lead to a kind of emotional promiscuity – she thinks nothing of bedding Brandon’s boss, or haranguing an earlier mate on the phone about how much she loves him and needs him. With Brandon, Sissy wants to make as much of a connection as she can, but she knows it’ll never be the same. Brandon is terrified that it might be the same, and refuses to go anywhere near that with her. Cissy wants those feelings back – Brandon wants everything else except that.
I don’t feel like I’m giving too much away because the film wears its psychology on its sleeve – it all seemed pretty apparent to me. McQueen is smart to tie these propensities to such detailed characters – Mike Nichols always says the trick for actors is to turn presented psychology into behavior, and Fassbender and Mulligan succeed, delivering superb performances. There are some very formulaic structures to the narrative here, but Fassbender and Mulligan unerringly keep you tied in to their specific characters – nothing falls into mere functionality, symbolism or melodrama. Mulligan has far less screen time, but never squanders her opportunities, especially in a lounge-singing rendition of ‘New York, New York;’ rather than staking her claim, she’s actually pleading, cajoling with New York, almost begging it to accept her. Fassbender is phenomenal – he’s credibly irresistible, and he credibly doesn’t give a shit, as long as he gets what he needs (which, again, is far more than orgasms). And I’d be remiss to not point out a great sequence with Nicole Beharie as a fellow worker of Brandon’s, whose minimal but rock-solid choices, perfectly underplayed, serve as a foil, and ultimately dignity-saving defense, against his potentially heartbreaking personal failings. Brandon’s opportunism, and crippling sense of shame, victimizes no one but himself.
This is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman or a girl, stated one Mr. James Brown. Not JUST because of sex, but, far more importantly, because of the things that make the sex good – safety, security, trust, intimacy, and affection. L’Apollonide’s customers, and Clara’s referrals to Lucy and her cohorts, get all that – but those things have been turned into commodities, imposed conditions, services – they’re not fostered organically. In fact, the clients of those establishments have all but given up on those qualities as genuinely attainable within their own lives. The one element missing from that list – emotional connection – is the one ‘commodity’ that can’t be fabricated or faked. And that’s the one element that Brandon Sullivan doesn’t want to have anything to do with, leading him to eliminate the other five as well.
Contemporary filmmakers seem to be telling us that the real tragedies of sex and sexual relations aren’t gender-specific – for both men and women, a vital, elemental, emotional connection is being lost, or, at the very least, is receding quickly from our lives, from our culture. Those that can find it and keep it for themselves are exceptional, not typical, and their numbers are dwindling; but their sex lives are terrific. Bertrand Bonello and his filmed creations lament their own missed chances at it, and can see its impending passing, immaterial of their particular livelihood, or even the time period they live in. Julia Leigh’s characters have already resigned themselves to its passing – there’s no sense of what’s to move on to, or what to bring along, after this, besides death. Brandon and Sissy are two sides of the same dysfunctional coin, and they may never find another emotional connection between themselves that might allow them to help each other heal. Intimacy between people may have wildly divergent emotional import for each of them, but unless those emotions are honestly shared, or even, at least, mutually acknowledged, all the champagne baths, automaton dolls, sleeping beauties or porn-inspired threesomes in the world won’t fill that absence.
‘Belle de Jour’ is widely available on DVD, and enjoys frequent revival screenings. ‘House Of Pleasures’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ are both available on many cable and satellite pay-per-view services through IFC Films, and are currently screening in New York and L.A. ‘Shame’ is currently showing at Landmark’s Century Theater in Chicago.