If there’s anything the movies love more than a hitman, it’s a hooker. It sometimes seems that the oldest profession is one of the most common professions onscreen, a blank canvas for filmmakers to smear with their notions about women, sex, money, power, and how they interact. Frankly, prostitutes are just as convenient for filmmakers as they are for johns: They can be thrust into almost any dramatic/comedic situation, be made to do almost anything, and they can be totally drained of rationale or agency if that’s handy—they’re there because someone paid them to be. And for every attempt at something like a realistic depiction of sex work (e.g. Lizzie Borden’s criminally obscure 1986 indie Working Girls), there are hundreds, maybe thousands of sex-for-hire characters that border on outright fantasy (e.g. Garry Marshall’s fairy tale Pretty Woman). Two recent films new to home video attempt to address the real consequences of selling your body, with varying results.
French writer/director Bertrand Bonello’s latest film was initially screened in the States under the title House of Tolerance. Behold, its home video release has been redubbed House of Pleasures (MPI Home Video DVD and streaming). This makes sense from a cynical marketing perspective, but in fact it’s also more apt from an ironic one. Bonello’s cameras cruise around the opulent halls and boudoirs of an elegant Parisian brothel at the turn of the 20th century, peeking in on the well-heeled clients as they sip champagne with the house’s young staff and pair off in the bedrooms. But it also focuses on the women in their off hours, trapped inside the house (which they can’t leave for fear of being arrested), totaling up the onerous debts they owe the madam (Noemie Lvovsky), hoping for a gallant client to buy out what they owe and make them respectable, but in the meantime sitting bored until it’s time to primp for the next all-night shift. The fears of what might happen to them if a Prince Charming doesn’t rescue them are embodied in Clotilde (Celine Sallette), who’s a weary veteran falling out of favor at the ripe old age of 28. Those who haven’t started worrying about that yet are nonetheless confronted with the fate of Madeleine (Alice Barnole), mutilated by a client and bearing the most extreme costs of their submission literally carved into her face.
There’s a lot going on here, and not always to the film’s benefit. Bonello is deft with his camera, centering on the women’s end of these transactions by cropping their patrons heads and bodies out of the frame. At one point, focused on the face of statuesque Lea (Adele Haenel) as a john has his way, Bonello flips to a point-of-view close-up of a fly crawling across an ornate picture frame across the room—what she has on her mind. At the same time, for all his gimlet observations about the uncertainty and stultification of the women’s lives as pampered chattel, Bonello also indulges in baffling eccentricities, from Madeleine relating (and repeating) a dream of crying tears of sperm to a contemporary coda starring several members of the cast that brings the plight of prostitution up to the present day in a way that’s neither subtle nor particularly trenchant. Let’s call it an interesting misfire.
It perhaps says something about the way the film world sees actresses, not just prostitutes, that Emily Browning has now played two characters in as many years who, essentially, are set up to sell their bodies as they sleep—first Babydoll in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch and now Lucy in Australian writer/director Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (MPI Home Video DVD and streaming). Despite her delicate pre-Raphaelite beauty, however, Browning’s Lucy is no languid, passive Belle Epoque hothouse flower. Striding around in short skirts and knee-high boots, she pays for college by holding down a couple of part-time jobs, volunteering for medical experiments, and, it appears, turning a trick here and there. Part of her character, you come to understand, is about pushing limits, in her own quiet way. A potential new employer, Clara (Rachael Blake), assures her that, no matter what she’s asked to do otherwise, there will be no penetration. “Your vagina is a temple,” Clara soothes. “My vagina is not a temple,” Lucy assures her.
What Clara wants Lucy to do, ultimately, is to lie naked and drugged into unconsciousness as rich clients do what they want (short of that). And it is at about this point that Sleeping Beauty goes awry. Up to this turn, Leigh builds character and plot with a beguiling obliqueness; the film is full of scenes that mystify you in the moment but click just after they end. When Lucy grabs a handful of berries off a bush as she gets in a car, it seems an idle gesture; when she discretely drops them on the floorboards, you realize she’s leaving clues in case something happens. Leigh goes on from there to create plenty of uncannily disturbing moments but just as much bemusement and disappointment. If you stop the film right there, with Lucy on her way, not knowing what will happen, what you imagine will probably be better than what Leigh came up with.