Bertrand Bonello’s highly stylized look at the final days of a fin-de-siècle brothel in Paris conjures up the languid beauty and frank sexuality of French Romantic painting. Its visual sumptuousness lands somewhere between Ingres and Renoir but with stylistic provocations worthy of a time-travelling Baudelaire.
In the nineteenth century, much of the Parisian sex trade was confined to grands maisons, populated by elegant madams and a vetted clientele. They were akin to social clubs, with the gentleman participants expected to be as charming and witty as they might be in more respectable drawing rooms. The ladies were provocatively dressed and, upstairs, occupied numerous boudoirs ready for carnal pleasures. Even in such a controlled environment, dangers still lurked: disease was rampant and lethal, and sometimes even a gentleman might lose his temper and harm one of the women.
House of Tolerance immerses us in this long-abandoned world, awash with opium, champagne and the inevitable rush of semen. The film’s pace accentuates the languor of the place, its many personages slowly revealing their life journeys like an old-fashioned striptease. Several of the stories are grim: country girls desperate for money, dumped from failed relationships or, most difficult to watch, slashed with a knife for little apparent reason.
And yet there is grace, especially in the daytime moments of sisterly camaraderie and the casual yet oddly affectionate deceits of the madam (in a stern turn from the formidable Noémie Lvovsky). This spirit carries into moments when modernity intrudes, most notably in a penultimate dance — as the brothel is about to be closed under order of the mayor — to the tune of an oddly appropriate “Nights in White Satin.” –TIFF
Brothel films are like submarine movies—the stories, the dramas, even the details always remain the same, held in a airtight container as if observing variations of the same scientific experiment. The challenge for the filmmaker is not invention, but sensibility in provoking these variations. Many characterizations of Bertrand Bonello’s L’apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close), set in the eponymous brothel at the “twilight” of the 19th century and “dawn” of the 20th, could be applied across an entire genre, the chambered mise-en-scène, the opiated, muffled tone; even dramas amongst the girls too: debts, love, violence, fetishism, a new girl, disease. Yet there is something else here, mysterious, practically intangible within the confines both of the brothel and the genre, something that leaves the film a lingering quality like smoke left hanging in a vacated room, traces, ghosts, remnants.
It’s in the mise-en-scène, calling up Hawks in coverage and Hou in feel and pace; it’s in the camera’s allegiance to the girl’s faces, sad, distant, actorly, abstracted even in laughter. It’s in the strange stylized gestures of the film, the declamatory title cards marking the turn of the century, periodic temporal jitters, moving forward and backward in time unmotivated, the intrusion of 1960s pop—calling to mind another end of an epoch film, Garrel’s Regular Lovers—and in a startling concluding jump to low-grade digital video.
Above all, L’apollonide is a sympathetic film, not just to suffering, oppression, bitterness, exploitation—again, common appearances within film conventions of brothels—but, more precisely, caring for this space of girlhood, sexuality, friendship, femininity and love confined and artificial, every relationship, setting and shot defined by its association within this lavish, decadent house of prostitution. It is in this patient, caring sympathy, laid out in Bonello’s relaxed pacing and direction of supreme attentiveness to the actresses, that L’apollonide achieves its melancholy strangeness and curiosity, moving it, as if in a trance, beyond the basic needs of genre, and leaving something dark behind in its wake.