Not without merit, “House of the Sleeping Beauties” reps the latest attempt to film Yasunari Kawabata’s elegantly perverse novella about a brothel where old men lie wide-awake beside slumbering naked young women. Oddly, though, in German actor-director Vadim Glowna’s adaptation, the peak moments occur in the story built around Kawabata’s core. Despite a panoply of nubile bodies sprawled across satin sheets, the novel’s central erotic experience appears to have been lost in translation. Nowadays, when nudity has largely disappeared from screens, First Run Features’ release of this sincere if flawed 2006 art film may prove more courageous than bankable.
Glowna provides his sad-sack central character, Edmond (played by Glowna himself), with a backstory: The wealthy sixtysomething businessman is haunted by the long-ago deaths of his wife and daughter in a car crash he suspects was suicidal. At the recommendation of his old friend Kogi (Maximilian Schell), Edmond limos off to the titular house run by an enigmatic madame (the incomparable Angela Winkler) to sleep with a different dead-to-the-world young woman every night.
There, he witnesses dark goings-on (a body in a bag spirited out of the house and dumped in a car) that only compel him to return more frequently, magnetically drawn to the oblivious young bodies he caresses and addresses.
For ultimately, within the red-accented 19th-century room, vases of lilies echoing the whiteness of the girls’ bodies, Edmond spends most of his time soliloquizing to a captive audience — talking about his mother, his first sexual encounter and increasingly, obsessively, about death. Death, of course, is the subtext of Kawabata’s story, Eros and Thanatos inextricably intertwined.
Glowna extends this death motif to include unseen wife of Edmond’s chauffeur, who, Lady Macbeth-like, advises her husband to kill his employer.
Any transition from literary interiority to widescreen color physicality poses nearly insurmountable challenges, requiring a strong, sweeping visual aesthetic (as in Visconti’s “Death in Venice”). But here, the ineffable, sensual pull of somnolent death is literalized as a fat old man whining incessantly about his mortality while stroking a succession of splayed-out naked women. It doesn’t help that the women look like perfect models, carefully arranged in sleep, without an ounce of excess flesh or a single pillow mark on them; there’s no sense here of dissolute sinking into unconsciousness.
Exchanges with Winkler’s menacing proprietress, however, vibrate with all manner of unspoken, contradictory tensions. If she represents the dark blood forces of the feminine id, Schell’s bearded Kogi reps a suitably Zeus-like masculine counterpoint.
Peter Weber’s brilliantly complex set design (sensuous brothel rooms opening on sheet-draped antechambers) almost compensates for pic’s sagging libido.