House of Sleeping Beauties
Friday, December 19, 2008
House of the Sleeping Beauties is based on a perverse novella by Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata and is the second attempt to bring it to the screen. This time German writer-director Vadim Glowna attempts to adapt it. The title refers to a very secretive and unique brothel that serves up sleeping women to its customers. Although it's not explained, the women seem to be drugged and cannot be awakened. A somewhat sinister madam (an effectively unnerving Angela Winkler) watches over the establishment and the girls. She explains that there are rules the clients must obey or there will be unpleasant consequences.
The main character is Edmond (played by director Glowna). He is a sixty something widower who has been sent here by a friend. Edmond is still grieving over the death of his wife and daughter 15 years ago. He suspects that the car crash that killed them was no accident but rather that his wife was trying to kill herself. His friend (played by the legendary Maximillian Schell) recommends the brothel in the hopes that Edmond will find some pleasure there. And while the naked, nubile young girls are attractive to Edmond, he chooses to use his time with them by talking to them and unburdening himself of all his grief and pain. The fact that they cannot respond and cannot even hear him makes it all the easier. So Glowna uses the youth and beauty of these young girls as an ironic counterpoint to Edmond's musings on mortality.
Based on this description, you may wonder if the film can manage to avoid objectifying the women who simply lie in bed nude as Edmond caresses them, observes them, and talks their ears off. And the simple answer is no. There is really no way to tell this story without making the women mere objects. But the discomfort level of this is reduced by the fact Glowna tries to handle it with restraint and artistry. The brothel is very extravagantly designed and doesn't seem connected to the real world. This helps to place it all in a surreal environment. Plus Glowna brings in heavy symbolism with visitations by the Virgin Mary and angels, and again that helps to remove us from reality and worrying about what a creepy occupation these girls are willingly or unwillingly involved in. Glowna goes for a kind of art house erotica with a touch of David Lynch's nightmare surrealism (there are velvet drapes and talk of toads and drowning corpses).
House of Sleeping Beauties (unrated but for mature audiences) is ultimately self-indulgent and pretentious in its attempts to be profound yet it's not without artful appeal. Glowna has an eye for lovely composition and the cinematography is lush. Also, the great actor Maximillian Schell has a brief bit at the beginning and it's a pleasure to see him again. In the end, the film beguiles with a certain beauty and sadness but feels far too slight to merit a feature length.
Companion viewing: La Belle Noiseuse, The Pillow Book, No Place to Go, Cold is the Breath of the Evening