Now Streaming: Bertrand Bonello's Cinematic House of Pleasures

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, US (@peteramartin)
Now Streaming: Bertrand Bonello's Cinematic House of Pleasures

Our own Dustin Chang reviewed The Beast, French director Bertrand Bonello's latest film, when it screened at the New York Film Festival last fall, and we reposted his review when the film opened for a theatrical engagement in New York a couple weeks ago, in which he described it as "perhaps the most ambitious, seductive film that Bonello has ever done, filled with ideas to the brim. It also features the career-best performance by [Lea] Seydoux. It's my frontrunner for the best film of the year."

Now that I've had a chance to see The Beast, I wanted to see the director's earlier films, so I could put it into context, as Dustin and our other reviewers have done. Bonello's early shorts and features, including Something Organic (1998), The Pornographer (2001), Tiresia (2003), and On War (2008), are not available to stream legally in the U.S., but four of his more recent features are now streaming.

House of Pleasure (2011)
Now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Sad and melancholy, Bonello made a film about a house of prostitution in Paris around the turn of the 19th century that doesn't seduce as much as it horrifies with the thought of what these women felt and experienced that led them to believe that selling their bodies was the best path in life to follow.

Mostly, they are trapped within the brothel, living and working together with other women to eke out an existence defined by lazy rotters who paid them for their sexual favors. As Bonello himself has acknowledged, he tends to make films about small worlds within the larger world around them, and this serves as a good introduction to his aesthetic, as he plays around with space and time in the editing and disjoints the narrative in search of greater emotional effect.

Saint Laurent (2014)
Now streaming on Starz.

As a followup to the historical drama, Bonello says he intended to make the modern-day Nocturama next, but the financing came through for this biography, which is not a traditional biography. Set from 1967 to 1976, the film bounces back and forth during a peak period in Yves Saint Laurent's life.

In his review, Ben Croll found the film's superficial nature a bit wearisome: "We're told that the work is groundbreaking, but never given the reason why. Just that he drank a lot, screwed around and smoked like a chimney, and somewhere along the way designed these great clothes."

(Read Ben's review in its entirety. It's quite a good read.)

Nocturama (2016)
Now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

I hesitate to describe this film beyond calling it a treatise on the anger of young people, which can be difficult to understand or explain. Some of the filmmaking choices are quite brilliant, yet it also plays -- to me -- as a visual apologia for terrorism, and certainly struck me often as repellant in the extreme.

(Read Dustin Chang's review in full, wherein he writes: "Bertrand Bonello's controversial cinematic stunt is all looks but little substance. If it's a parable of today's chaotic world, it's a weak one.")

The Criterion Channel is also streaming an interview with the director from 2020 about those two films, as well as his most recent (at the time), which made me curious to see it too, which led me to the following.

Zombie Child (2019)
Now streaming on Tubi.

The ad-supported service began its presentation with a 30-second ad for Arby's, a fast-food chain known for its beef sandwiches (presumably not human flesh). I watched only the first 15 minutes, until its first proper commercial break -- for auto insurance this time -- which broke the mood, of course. But it's there, and saved for further inspection. And it's free!

(Read Dustin Chang's review: "Zombi Child digs deeper into hasty Western appropriation of everything non-European, non-Anglo American culture. It disregards the cultural, historical, ethnographical significance of the origins of a zombie in exchange for sensationalism. Narcisse's journey back home is the more interesting story here.")

Bonello's films seem especially ill-suited for ad-supported streaming services, since the ones I've seen could all be termed mood pieces. They're films that are more absorbed with feelings and emotions than character developments or plot machinations.

As a person who is obsessed with details and logic, I enjoy more conventional films that exist in an ordered universe. Even more, though, I love films that sweep me away and capture my imagination and my heart.

Still, I respect films that throw logic and reason away and captivate me visually. Bertrand Bonello definitely has a gift for assembling images with a creative eye, and his films are worth exploring, to see whether his vision appeals to you or not.

Visit the official site for The Beast to see locations and showtimes.

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