HOUSE OF PLEASURES, which was shown on the film festival circuit under the more appropriate and less commercially exploitable title HOUSE OF TOLERANCE, is a stinging mood piece which explores the plight of a group of prostitutes in a high-end Parisian bordello at the turn of the 20th–century.
The film presents the prostitutes, all of whom are beautiful or exotic, as victims. They may be elegantly dressed as they lounge around the bordello’s parlor, where they share space with clients who are businessmen, politicians, or other members of the French elite. But ultimately, they have no control over their lives. They have become prostitutes to pay off debts that they never will be able to square. Clearly, they never will be able to live so-called “respectable” working class lives.
Even though Bertrand Bonello, the director of HOUSE OF PLEASURES, is highly critical of the plight of these women, he often films them without clothes-- and this, perhaps, becomes the film’s selling point. If you watch HOUSE OF PLEASURES, which recently was released on DVD, you will get to see plenty of beautiful young women sans clothing. So the question becomes: Does this sort of imagery override Bonello’s point about the exploitation of women?
Entering the discussion here is another film that has just come to DVD. It is a documentary, titled NO-BODY’S PERFECT, and it is a biting chronicle of filmmaker Niko von Glasow’s quest to find eleven individuals who, just like him, were born with physical disabilities that were the side effects of their mothers’ taking the drug Thalidomide during pregnancy. Von Glasow wishes to photograph these individuals for a calendar. And he wishes to photograph them without clothes.
On one level, an individual may gaze at images of naked or near-naked bodies that are marketed in our culture. These days, in order to do so, that individual does not have to purchase a copy of Playboy or a similar skin magazine. These images may be found, well, everywhere. Furthermore, you can watch plenty of television commercials that are targeted to young people, and all the bodies on the screen will be physically beautiful. The same holds true for teen or twentysomething screen comedies. If a character is anything less that magazine cover-sexy, he or she will be depicted as a nerd, or a loser.
So in a film like HOUSE OF PLEASURES, the serious intent of the filmmaker to portray the exploitation of women just may be overridden by the images of the women. But what if those naked bodies on display are of individuals who are not perfectly formed: individuals who are elderly, overweight, or physically disabled, as is the case in NO-BODY’S PERFECT?
In addition to offering three-dimensional portraits of his subjects, who have managed to live “normal” lives despite their disabilities, von Glasow offers a provocative take on how our culture views the naked body-- and on how our reverence for bodies that only are perfectly proportioned is sadly askew.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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