Every once in a while an assignment comes along that promises cheap thrills; this obscure German movie from 2006 about a brothel where men pay to sleep with — literally, just sleep with — naked young lovelies promised absurdity and titillation in equal measure. It didn’t quite disappoint on either count, though it’s possible to glimpse a better movie emerging around the edges of this one.
Edmond (Vadim Glowna, who also wrote and directed) is an exhausted sixtysomething widower still weighed down by the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident 15 years earlier. He trudges through the streets of Berlin, from his empty, loveless home to his office and back, all the while reliving arguments with his late wife and glumly reckoning with his own inevitable death. One day his more urbane friend Kogi (Maximillian Schell) tells him about the brothel, and before 10 minutes have gone by in the movie our man is ringing the bell to get in.
It’s implied that most of the customers in this brothel are elderly gents, so happy to ogle and fondle the young beauties of the title that they’re not bothered by the house rules which forbid actually having sex with the girls. The girls have been heavily sedated so that they’ll sleep through anything; the resident Madame (Angela Winkler) revives them the next morning with another injection, after the customers have left. The film is based on a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, and perhaps the conceit of the sleeping beauties works better in the book than in the movie, which has the problem of being a literal representation. It’s never explained how the girls’ hair and makeup still look perfect no matter how long they’ve been asleep. And since this is a male fantasy, you can bet the girls don’t snore or drool, either.
Kawabata’s work is reportedly based in turn on rumors of a real-life such brothel that supposedly existed in Berlin during the 1920s and ‘30s. The premise is certainly creepy, and a little grotesque: men so drawn to female pulchritude that they don’t even want (or can’t deal with) a real live girl to interact with as they go about ogling and caressing young female flesh. For these wealthy clients, anonymity and passivity are part of the turn-on.
The movie doesn’t stint on showing lots of skin. But pervs ready to zoom House of Sleeping Beauties to the top of their queues should be aware that the nudity comes with a Brechtian alienation effect in the form of the naked Edmond (i.e., the filmmaker himself). The director’s willingness to appear in the buff, more or less, is admirable, and the sight of his sagging, paunchy, leathery carcass as Edmond paws at the unconscious girls means that the scenes in the brothel are no Skinemax-style sexploitation. The sight of Edmond indulging in what he paid for inspires not just pathos, but a host of uncomfortable associations — such as a constant awareness of exploitation, of chasing after youth and past glories, the suggestion of breast-feeding — that are the film’s true subject matter.
Edmond quickly becomes obsessed with the brothel. Alone with the passive, unresponsive Mädchen each night, he relives his relationship with his mother, his earliest sexual experiences, the way things were with his wife and daughter, and so on. We’re privy to his reminiscences through a series of dour voiceover soliloquies as he glumly pads around the brothel’s suites in his underwear or butt naked. Late-life sexual impulses in the face of physical decline and death are a subject worth exploring (any number of later Philip Roth and Milan Kundera novels come to mind), but perhaps in the company of anyone other than Edmond. His pensees aren’t exactly scintillating, and he himself is a dull, tiresome figure.
It doesn’t help that House of Sleeping Beauties is the kind of film that defines “arty” as opposed to artistic. The production values are infallibly tasteful, and at times the movie is like a hybrid of interior monologue and tone poem. But as such it’s kind of suffocating, too interior and refined for its own good, when a dash of rude wit and a greater sense of engagement with the world (or at least, Berlin) might have made Edmond’s predicament more poignant, or piquant. Watching the movie I found myself wondering what a sweaty-palmed schlockmeister like Jess Franco could have done with the same material. The filmmaking would no doubt be more lurid and borderline inept (in contrast to Glowna’s handsome production), but also more charged, crazy, and maybe stumbling into some kind of emotional truth, or at least something more entertaining.