Do people want slavery to come back? It would seem that the idea is erotically compelling, granting permission to imagine naked women and children in bondage, in chains, in the thrall of evil captors. With these scenarios, viewers and readers don’t have to think, because Good and Evil are clearly identified with no chance that contradictory uncertainties will muddy one’s reactions. The ferocity with which Kristof is defended is proof that some people will not tolerate any interesting human ambiguity at all (see hostile comments).
But are visions of enslavement also attractive? A new film about an elite brothel in 19th-century France was reviewed in an extraordinarily biased way in the New York Times (whose judgement on slavery issues is now officially in doubt). After sketching what sounds like a dark, subtle, moody movie, the reviewer concludes There is only one word to describe life inside L’Apollonide: slavery.
But the reviewer sounds as though he did not understand the film or its particular artistic vision. Being set mostly inside the brothel itself, any aspect of prostitutes’ lives outside are omitted. The filmmaker has limited the stage to the usual focus in depictions of prostitutes’ lives – the workplace where they perform. The reviewer sounds very naive about women’s lives in general, including today, if he doesn’t know that we get ‘poked at’ by ‘imperious male doctors’ and feel like ‘slabs of meat’. Et cetera. Whatever he chooses to describe about this film, his conclusion that it’s about slavery is just silly.
Stephen Holden, 24 November 2011, The New York Times
Madeline . . . is a prostitute . . . at L’Apollonide, an elegant Parisian brothel at the end of the 19th century. Early in the movie, when she entertains a handsome young client who produces an emerald, she wonders out loud if the gift is a proposal. But this tender moment is only a dream. [This is a sexist, pro-romance comment, as if marriage were so great.]
The young man, who confesses that he wants to hurt her, has other things in mind. In a subsequent encounter, he coaxes her into letting him tie her up. He produces a knife, trails it lightly across her naked body and between her lips, then slashes her from both corners of her mouth, while she emits a rending scream. . . .[Sadistic nutters exist everywhere, not only as clients in brothels.]
Demoted from courtesan to housekeeper, Madeline continues to hover on the edges of the film, a stoic, nearly silent presence. In a later scene she is the impassive erotic object of curiosity at an elaborate sadomasochistic banquet at which the madam has rented her out for the evening. [These are performances, remember.]
. . . Throughout the film there is an abundance of sumptuously photographed flesh on view. But House of Pleasures is not an erotic stimulant so much as a slow-moving, increasingly tragic and claustrophobic operatic pageant set almost entirely in the brothel. The heavy candlelit chiaroscuro paints the women as mobile Renoirs, Degases and Manets. . .[But real life is not always candlelit, even in a brothel.]
As this languidly paced film draws you ever deeper into a cloistered world, which it examines in microscopic detail, you become familiar with its rituals and breathe in an atmosphere that in the words of one character “stinks of sperm and Champagne.” And perfume and scented soap, I would add. [Why does the reviewer add this cliché?]
The movie details the rules of the house and shows the women bathing, dressing and preparing for work. Except for a daytime excursion and a brief epilogue set in contemporary Paris, it unfolds entirely inside the mansion. In one uncomfortable scene the women are lined up for minute internal examinations by an imperious male doctor, who pokes at them as if they were slabs of meat. In the days before penicillin, venereal disease was a major occupational hazard. One of the women is found to have syphilis. [And today other illnesses are hazards.]
We are told the conventional scientific wisdom of the day that prostitutes and criminals have smaller heads than other people. [That was the academic thinking of the day.]
The patrons — most of them are wealthy, older repeat customers — treat the women with a guarded, paternalistic affection that half conceals a profound condescension, one manifestation of which is the pressure on the women to act out elaborate, humiliating fantasies. One is given a chilly Champagne bath. Another goes through the jerky body language of an expressionless marionette. A third is made up as a Japanese geisha and required to speak in a kind of Asian baby talk. [Insiders will not be surprised at the odd requests of customers; nothing demonic here.]
As we become familiar with individual prostitutes, it becomes ever clearer that sex work at L’Apollonide is not a recommended means for a rebellious girl to assert her independence. The youngest, 16-year-old Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), loses her enthusiasm as she realizes there is no future in the work. The best possible outcome is the unlikely prospect of being bought by a wealthy man, which the screenplay suggests is akin to exchanging one prison for another.[Compared with what? [There were no means for rebellious girls to assert independence in the period and place of the film without being stigmatised, abandoned or worse.]
All of the women sustain debts incurred by the expense of their high-maintenance appearance. Even the madam, Marie-France (Noémi Lvovsky), whose two children and pet panther live on the premises, is a victim. When the landlord decides to raise her rent astronomically, an official she counted on for help refuses to intervene. [Standard situations for women, then and now, whether they sell sex or not.]
There is only one word to describe life inside L’Apollonide: slavery.
Nonsense. The reviewer sounds inexperienced and unsophisticated. Someone go see the film and report back, please.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist