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Susti Heaven

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Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2010
Cast: Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Jasmine Trinca, Adele Haenel, Alice Barnole, Iliana Zabeth, Noémie Lvovsky, Xavier Beauvois, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Jacques Nolot, Laurent Lacotte, Judith Lou Levy, Anais Thomas, Pauline Jaquard, Maia Sandoz, Joanna Grudzinska, Esther Garrel
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Release Date: April 14, 2012, 2:16 pm
Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes, nudity)
Run Time: 02h:05m:26s

“You stare at me…and seem to want to hurt me. Then your face turns normal again.” - Madeleine (Alice Barnole)

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Heavily represented on 2011 "Best Of" lists, this French film promises to be both an erotic and visual treat, boasting one of the largest casts in recent memory.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: B+

Sure prostitution is still considered the “oldest profession,” but films about prostitution aren’t exactly a new thing either. The life of a lady of the night has been portrayed in many different ways as well, in films that look at the inherently harsh nature of the profession (the Ken Russell films Whore and Crimes of Passion), and in movies that take a more positive, fanciful perspective (Pretty Woman and the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). 2011 saw the release of a different kind of film in this subgenre; one that chronicles a brothel in turn-of-the-century France whose live-in employees function as more of an extended family than a mere group of call girls. House of Pleasures: L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la Maison Close), originally titled House of Tolerance, is the product of filmmaker Bertrand Bonello (The Pornographer, Tiresia), who has never shyed away from racy, controversial subjects. IFC Films delivers his amazing film to DVD in exemplary fashion, with fantastic audio and video presentations that could only have be improved upon by a Blu-ray disc release, which, currently (and sadly) isn't in the works.

In the French house L’Apollinde, lives a group of women, who entertain wealthy men on a nightly basis. Led by the house’s owner, Madam Marie-France (Noémie Lvovsky), these ladies live and work at L’Apollinde mostly due to Marie-France’s promise of a glamorous life off of the dangerous streets. For most of the ladies, this promise turns to necessity as they wind up staying at the house longer than anticipated in order to pay off debts that they incur thanks to the difference between what they charge their gentlemen suitors and what they have to give to Marie- France at the end of the night. With the French social and economic climate changing, disease running rampant in France, and many of the ladies facing unconquerable individual struggles, it might be only a matter of time before L’Apollinde closes down.

Bonello first wowed this film buff with 2001’s ultra-risqué, The Pornographer, thanks, in large part to his unwillingness to shy away from showing anything and everything (in this case, what is widely considered as actual pornographic material in a non-pornographic film) to realize his cinematic vision. Bonello does more of the same in House of Pleasures, albeit at a far less sexually graphic level, and much more effectively overall this time around. I was actually surprised at how few on-screen sex scenes exist in his new film, but this is more than likely a sign that Bonello has matured as a filmmaker since The Pornographer. He no longer needs to rely on titillation to see his vision come to fruition, instead focusing on the crafting of an atmospheric tale, complete with exquisite, naturalistic performances from a collection of extremely talented, gorgeous actresses, and a tight, original screenplay that often pushes the boundaries between reality and fantasy via subtle, seemingly unnatural shifts in time and place (I’d discuss these further, but spoiling their discovery even in the slightest is to take away some of the movie’s many joys).

The aforementioned cast crafts each of their unique characters so well, that it’s hard to believe some of these ladies are relative newcomers. While they’re all amazing, there are some major standouts, including the first one we, as an audience, become “intimate” with. We meet Madeleine (Alice Barnole) in the dreamy Prologue, but it’s in her heartbreaking scenes later in the film that we truly realize the greatness of Barnole’s performance. These prostitutes’ lives are harrowing enough, but what Madeleine is asked to deal with after a fateful night at L’Apollinde is handled by Barnole for the rest of the film in Oscar-worthy fashion. Also worthy of strong praise are the gorgeous, experienced actress Hafsia Herzi (The Secret of the Grain) as the exotic Samira, Jasmine Trinca as Julie, Iliana Zabeth as Pauline, and Céline Sallette as Clotilde. Sure, it would have likely been difficult to convince higher- profile actors to spend most of a film without their clothes on, but it’s also likely that going such a route with the casting would have resulted in the audience being distracted by naked big-name actors, rather than what we have in House of Pleasures, top-notch talents giving the performances of their careers.

IFC’s DVD is as impressive as it gets from a non-Blu-ray disc, beginning with the incredible anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 video presentation. There’s a lot of exposed flesh on display, and, in that regard, it’s even more important than usual that we get natural flesh tones that work well with the rest of the exquisitely rendered color palette. Image detail is always crisp, and black and shadow levels never falter. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is also amazing, with the surround channels opening up to accommodate the film’s unforgettable music-laden sequences. Dialogue is also well-done, with the actors’ speech remaining crystal clear and well-integrated into the overall mix at all times. The extras include pieces involving the film’s extensive casting process, as well as a featurette that finds Bonello taking us through a specific sequence from House of Pleasures from its conception to its final take. The film’s theatrical trailer is also here to round out an overall first-rate DVD release.

Chuck Aliaga April 14, 2012, 2:16 pm