House of the Sleeping Beauties

Old men are ugly. Young women are beautiful. There’s the nut of House of the Sleeping Beauties, in which the film’s director, Vadim Glowna, plays Edmond, a depressed, regretful businessman who still laments the long-ago death of his wife and daughter in an automobile accident that he suspects may have been an act of suicide. To help assuage his ennui, a buddy (Maximilian Schell) suggests that he visit an unusual kind of brothel, where lovely young women are stretched out, nude, in bed, thanks to the effects of a powerful tranquilizer that they allow to be administered by the mansion’s Madame (Angela Winkler). Hope they’re well paid. The scenario, based on a story by the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata, stops short of rape fantasy — penetration is expressly forbidden, though Edmond tests the boundaries by sticking a meaty finger into one woman’s mouth.

The connection between eroticism and death is oft-considered material in the movies, though it’s rarely laid out this obviously — it’s not just subtext but text. The photography by Ciro Cappellari is rich and colorful, emphasizing the beauty of the women, who really do seem to glow in an almost supernatural fashion. But beyond that, House doesn’t have much going on — and, frankly, the film’s chances of making it as an eerie fable on the temporal and emotional gulfs separating the vibrant living from the walking dead are undermined by the unavoidable feeling of opportunism. Sure, it’s extra-textual knowledge — but once you grok that Glowna, a fine enough actor, blithely cast himself as the doughy old man laying naked in bed with the babes whom the script (also by Glowna) requires him to paw and kiss, the film takes on an exhibitionist air.

By the time Glowna’s penis makes its cameo in close-up, crossing the widescreen frame, it’s clear that this is a very personal film. But it lacks the formal rigor to be interesting in the poetic sense, the narrative savvy to consummate its flirtations with suspense, or a sense of humor that could leaven Glowna’s obstinately sad-eyed approach and put a spark in his incessant, ponderous voiceovers. During the last 20 minutes or so, I kept myself awake and amused by imagining John Cleese playing the protagonist, instead. Now that’s a movie. D

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