“I have made an effort to get hold of the images in which the experience of the big city is precipitated in a child of the middle class. I believe it possible that a fate expressly theirs is held in reserve for such images. No customary forms await them yet. . . . But, then, the images of my metropolitan childhood perhaps are capable, at their core, of preforming later historical experience. I hope they will at least suggest how thoroughly the person spoken of here would later dispense with the security allotted his childhood.”
So wrote the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) in his Berlin Childhood Around 1900, a singular work that aims to recapture the past through places, objects, and momentary sensations, keeping descriptions of people—the author included—to a minimum. This eccentric approach results in one of the most poignant articulations of this writer’s lifelong mission: to achieve spiritual epiphany through engagement with the material world. Benjamin describes the minutiae of fin-de-siecle Berlin to give shape to the values of that era—specifically those that didn’t survive into the 20th century. His writing is generally bittersweet, evoking a world of comfort and refinement but also pervasive naivete; it can be downright creepy as well, as the depopulated settings make the past seem like a ghost town to which people can never return.
If someone were to attempt a movie adaptation of Berlin Childhood, it might look something like House of Pleasures, the new film by French writer-director Bertrand Bonello that screens this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The movie takes place just before and after the turn of the 20th century; it emphasizes setting over character and plot; and it casts a mood that’s both eerie and entrancing. Though it’s set in a brothel, it presents prostitution much like Benjamin described socks or sewing kits in Berlin Childhood—as the material representation of an extinct worldview. Bonello can be as eccentric a filmmaker as Benjamin was a writer, emphasizing his clinical detachment from the period through odd directorial choices: he scores several scenes to 60s R&B, for instance, and he seems to have cast several of the nonprofessional players for their inability to evoke a past era.
The action mainly occurs in March 1900; with the exception of two scenes, it transpires entirely within the walls of the Appolonide, a popular Paris brothel that caters to middle-class men. Time and space may be rigidly defined; the storytelling is not. Bonello organizes the movie as a series of impressions, drifting from character to character without making any one the central figure. Often a person will emerge from the setting only to recede back into it, though some of the women experience subtle developments over the course of the film. A 12-year veteran named Clotilde (Céline Sallette) grows dependent on opium; Madeleine (Alice Barnole), an older prostitute, retreats into hiding after a sadistic client disfigures her; and the middle-aged madam (Noémie Lvovsky) slowly loses her resolve when faced with raising rent prices. None of these subplots provides much satisfaction as drama, but this seems to be the point: Bonello’s subject is the brothel as an institution, and the personal stories serve to reinforce our understanding of how it worked.
The Appolonide is filled with the sort of delicate and ornate decor that signified social respectability in this era. Since the film’s budget was relatively small, however (just under four million euros), Bonello conveys the opulence through minimalist means. In an interview conducted for the film’s press materials, he explained that his cinematographer, Josée Deshaies, hung black velvet on the walls in certain shots in order to emphasize the few antique props and costumes he could afford. Other times the film suggests the whole environment through the close-up of a single revealing item. Strategies like these come to suggest a visual analogue to Benjamin’s prose, giving heightened presence to certain details while keeping others deliberately fuzzy. They also shape the storytelling in unusual ways: in a characteristic sequence, Bonello abruptly cuts away from a shot of intercourse to consider a ladybug crawling across a banister.
Moments like these illustrate the fragility of the environment and the countless little details on which it depends. As Bonello presents it, the Appolonide’s allure has less to do with eroticism than with its cocoonlike insularity. Numerous scenes take place in the house’s lavish drawing room, where customers discuss current events and play parlor games as if entertaining guests in their own homes. (Bonello has noted that men of this era regularly visited brothels without ever having sex.) Another recurring location is the breakfast table where the prostitutes kibitz after a long night of work. These sequences exude such a familial atmosphere that it doesn’t feel strange when the madam’s young children enter the room. Yet Bonello isn’t idealizing prostitution here: as the madam frequently states, the Appolonide is above all a business, and keeping things friendly between the women keeps the business running smoothly. The prostitutes’ day trip to the countryside (which accounts for the movie’s longest sequence outside the brothel) serves a similar purpose, providing the women with some levity that they can channel back into their work.
The prostitutes genuinely seem to like each other’s company, but how happy are they? It’s hard to say: Bonello seems unconcerned with psychology, if not resentful of its prominence among modern storytelling. “The concept of destiny is important to me,” he said in an interview conducted for the DVD of Tiresia (2003), his third feature. “It has largely disappeared in cinema and narration, and it has been replaced by psychology . . . . More and more, I enjoy films that are like propositions rather than explanations.” The sentiment of this interview—and of Bonello’s work on the whole—evokes 19th-century writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Nikolai Gogol, who often told stories about characters motivated by forces that they can’t explain. Bonello’s previous films tried to marry this archaic worldview to contemporary settings. I found them unsatisfying when I first saw them, but now I’m curious to revisit them in light of House of Pleasures, which uses Bonello’s affinity for 19th-century storytelling to deepen its elegy for the period.
By emphasizing his—and, implicitly, the audience’s—distance from the subject matter, Bonello encourages viewers to consider what Western culture may have lost since 1900. One of the casualties, it seems, is an enchanting sense of mystery that once shaped people’s understanding of eroticism—as well as each other. Over and over, Bonello presents customers asking the prostitutes to act out fantasies so arcane that they seem practically childlike (one girl is paid to move like a mechanical doll; another is asked to wear a kimono and speak gibberish that sounds Japanese). The cloistered world of the Appolonide encourages these fantasies even as it prevents understanding of the world at large. Like Walter Benjamin, Bonello associates this insularity with both innocence and the 19th century; and when, in the final sequence of House of Pleasures, he dispenses with the security exuded by these subjects, the effect is like being shaken violently out of a dream.