Days before Saint Laurent, Bertrand Bonello’s own take on the life of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent is due to compete in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Sky Arts channel decided to revisit his last venture into feature films, 2011’s L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close or House of Tolerance. Set in a Parisian brothel at the turn of the 20th century, the film focuses on the lives of the female incumbents, from languid evenings as they wait for their usual male clients to their regimented days of good hygiene and genuine sisterhood.
Alternatively known as House of Pleasures in the US, which seems either a truly ironic statement or one which misunderstands the sumptuous world we are allowed into, House of Tolerance is a superficial and slow-moving film which relies on the hope that, much like the returning clients, the viewer has seen behind the red curtain and have little desire to leave. The ensemble characters go about their daily business, aware of the quasi-prison system they are locked into. The women earn or pay off “debts” which they owe to their Madam, a stern but seemingly fair woman played by Noémie Lvovsky who struggles to keep the business afloat unbeknown to her employees. Though the initial set-up appears to be the only narrative strand within the film, a number of characters make their mark on the story, each representing the troubling and sometimes dangerous situations women in this industry were/are exposed to. The beautiful Madeleine (Alice Barnole) is brutally disfigured by a client, a transformation likened to Heath Ledger’s The Joker and thus becomes known as “The Woman Who Laughs”. Kept on as a maid, she wanders the house as a ghost and is loved by her friends within the brothel. The Returned‘s Céline Sallette plays the disenchanted Clothilde, a seasoned prostitute who has begun to rely heavily on opium and regrets her choices whereas Jasmine Trinca plays a cheerful woman who has syphilis and yet is abandoned by the older, married gentleman she contracted it from. Finally, an idealistic and self-assured 16 year-old country girl (Iliana Zabeth) joins the house to be “free”, but soon realises the regime and reality of life in a brothel is anything but liberating. The Madam proudly declares “this isn’t a knocking shop” and takes pride in the service her sumptuous establishment provides, but as the film unfolds we are only too aware of the long-term stagnation and ennui which can occur in permanent exile. Though their work has granted legality, the girls barely venture outside; their existence occupying a nether world of neither respectability or complete condemnation.
Certain moments within the film make use of split-screen in order to show the multitude of nightly activities which go on simultaneously: a myriad of strange fetishes, disinterested sexual encounters and dream-like fantasies. A definite highlight of the film is a scene in which the girls tearfully dance together to a soundtrack of The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’, a strange and yet fitting moment of unabashed emotion and tenderness between characters bonded in grief. Book-ended by the traumatic act of abuse against Madeleine, the film is confirmed as both a highly-stylized interpretation of a changing period and a further cementing of Bonello’s reputation as an artist associated with the ‘New French Extremity’, a new wave of French-filmmaking in the 21st century unafraid to portray shocking brutality in violence and sex.
House of Tolerance begins to pose questions about whether the sex trade has changed, improved or has any hope of being eradicated as a form of male-dominated commerce, but no answer seems to have the potential to satisfy. The girls in L’Apollonide fear the closure of the house and the prospect of having to roam the streets of Paris for their business. As the film comes to end, we are offered a glimpse of that fear come to life: a modern Parisian street is traversed by a weary Clothilde…