By Kristi Mitsuda | Indiewire November 12, 2008 at 8:12AM
Intended as a meditation on mortality and morality, Vadim Glowna's adaptation of a Yasunari Kawabata novel simultaneously strives towards portentous poeticism and thriller intrigue, but falls more into tawdry B-movie territory instead. Written, directed, and produced by the German filmmaker, who also stars as protagonist Edmond, "House of the Sleeping Beauties" follows a man in the literal and figurative winter of his life. Edmond begins to visit the titular maison upon the advice of longtime friend Kogi (Maximilian Schell), who creepily persuades him by saying, "I only feel really alive when lying beside someone somnolent."
Battling an entrenched loneliness following the deaths of his wife and daughter to a car accident some years prior, the character unsuccessfully courts audience sympathy as he goes forth in his, frankly, skanky quest for human contact. The bordello is outfitted in shades of crimson and jade and decked out with gauzy canopy curtains, nude paintings and ornate fixtures; the smell of perfume and cigarette nearly emanate from the screen. The head of the house, simply called Madame (Angela Winkler), is in the business of renting out warm bodies, young and beautiful, to old men. Though they pay to sleep with the girls, engaging in actual sex with the alleged virgins is against the rules.
Yet even as Madame warns Edmond against "excessiveness," she offers a brief orientation rife with menacing undertones: "Whatever you do, the girl will sleep through it, and when she awakes, she will know nothing of what has happened, not even who was sleeping beside her." Glowna obviously means to convey a humanistic portrait of a lonely man by attributing tenderness rather than lechery to his actions -- from Edmond's gentle caresses to his attempts to wake the sleeping beauties so he might talk to them - but he fails to mitigate the disturbing scenario of a man three times a given girl's age taking advantage of her drugged compliance. Such a feat would require a sophisticated, steady touch sorely lacking in this ham-fisted exercise, and the intended pathos comes off instead as privileged perversion.
At one point, Glowna even acknowledges this, verbalizing as Edmond, "When an old man caresses a girl like this, it is lamentation, nothing more." A second later, he reconsiders: "Pah, lamentation! Arousal!" And pretenses to ethical reservations about the barbarity of vampirizing the girls' youth fall away as Edmond's qualms segue into self-involved memories of his mother, wife, or daughter. When Edmond isn't pontificating aloud while squeezing a nubile breast, his internal musings, expressed via voiceover, take over; sometimes one has to stifle an impulse to scream "Shut UP!" at the screen. But these ramblings of an old man do serve a narrative purpose: It soon becomes clear, interspersed as his monologues are with flashbacks, that he's dictating his memoirs to the sleeping beauties -- these are the reveries of a dying man.
Ratcheting up the suspense factor are the overwrought soundtrack and cryptic exchanges between Edmond and Madame. After witnessing what looks suspiciously like a dead body being carted off in the middle of the night, Edmond confers with Kogi. His friend warns him not to return to the house, but it becomes increasingly obvious that Edmond's continued patronage is both a way to stave off death and an embrace of the inevitable. Although voiceover duties occasionally pass to Madame or Edmond's secretary, this access provides the women no interiority; they're only ever given to brief and painful embellishments upon Edmond's character ("It's as if he lives in a garden full of snow, ringed by high walls -- no bird ventures to fly in"); this exemplifies the film's obliviousness. "Sleeping Beauties"' art-house pretensions can't disguise its self-indulgent frivolity.
Unlike "Exterminating Angels," Jean-Claude Brisseau's similarly solipsistic but fascinating sexual probe, Glowna's effort is neither erotic nor inquisitive. And regardless of its unsavory premise, "Sleeping Beauties" is not outrageously lurid enough for recuperation as campy titillation -- the buzz-killing effects of Edmond's interminable faux poetic waxing don't help. The ludicrous concluding twist merely puts the final nail in the coffin.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot