'Sleeping Beauties,' Comforting A Lonely Sinner An adaption of Yasunari Kawabata's 1961 novella, Sleeping Beauties is a wistful erotic mystery centered around an eccentric German brothel. Mark Jenkins calls it artful and delicate — but with an oddly tone-deaf ending.
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'Sleeping Beauties,' Comforting A Lonely Sinner

In Sleeping Beauties, a widowed businessman seeks comfort at a strangely specialized brothel. First Run Features hide caption

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First Run Features

In Sleeping Beauties, a widowed businessman seeks comfort at a strangely specialized brothel.

First Run Features

The mournful Edmond (actor-director Vadim Glowna) shares a quiet moment with two unnamed beauties; "lamentation," he calls his time with them, "nothing more." hide caption

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The mournful Edmond (actor-director Vadim Glowna) shares a quiet moment with two unnamed beauties; "lamentation," he calls his time with them, "nothing more."

"Sleep with" is no euphemism in this sexually charged fable about a highly specialized Berlin brothel. Its clients are old men who pay for a night-long cuddle — but nothing more — with nude, drugged young lovelies.

Contrasting a cast of veteran actors with an array of mostly silent and unclothed frauleins, House of Sleeping Beauties is a beguiling bit of erotic mood-spinning. Beautifully framed and composed, and heavily dependent on voiceover, the movie has a suitably wistful air; the story's outcome, however, is disappointingly concrete.

This is the third film (and the first Western one) adapted from Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata's 1961 novella, and writer-director Vadim Glowna, who also plays protagonist Edmond, takes many details from the book.

But he adds a new back story and ending, both of them more conventional than the film's mysterious vibe promises.

A businessman in his 60s, Edmond is haunted by the car-crash deaths of his wife and daughter. (Did this happen recently, or long ago? We'll find out eventually.)

Edmond turns to his friend Kogi (Maximilian Schell), who recommends the "meditational" experience offered by a small, discreet establishment.

On his first visit, Edmond is greeted by the unnamed madam (Angela Winkler), who offers him tea, sleeping pills and a Franco-Japanese boudoir outfitted with an unconscious woman. That he's not to have sex with his deeply slumbering bedmate is unstated, but understood.

As Edmond becomes a regular, he learns some more rules: He mustn't speak to any of the women if he encounters them outside the house, and he can't have the same drug that renders them insensible.

Edmond doesn't follow instructions well and is sometimes threatened with banishment. Yet the mercurial madam doesn't follow through on such threats, perhaps because she has a dwindling clientele. An old man recently died in the house, Kogi tells Edmond, and his body was quickly removed to avoid attracting attention to the unusual business.

The incident is just one reminder that death is Eros' partner in this dance, a pairing that seems less forced in the Japanese original. (At one point, Edmond speculates about staging a murder-suicide, a classic motif of geisha-house romances.) Mourning his wife and daughter, and anticipating his own demise, Edmond calls his caresses of one sleeping beauty "lamentation, nothing more."

Ultimately, Glowna decides to offer more, with a twist that's not taken from the novella. Rather than merely musing on the gap between young women's bodies and old men's yearnings, the director concludes the tale decisively — if not quite satisfyingly.

Some viewers may find the movie creepy, but it's also artful and delicate.

It's only with the final sequence, which veers from melancholy lust to kitschy redemption, that House of Sleeping Beauties turns leaden.