CANNES Q&A: 'House of Tolerance' Director Bertrand Bonello

The French director's latest film, "House of Tolerance," is set in a Parisian brothel in the early 20th century.

On screen, he’s explored transsexuals, funeral parlors and pornography and now, Bertrand Bonello’s camera is aimed at prostitutes. His feature Tiresia, about a Brazilian transsexual screened in Competition at the 2003 Festival de Cannes, and Bonello was back in the Official Selection with short film Cindy, the Doll is Mine in 2005 then with his fourth feature On War at the Director’s Fortnight in 2008. Bonello trained as a classical musician and composes for his own films. Bonello’s Competition title House of Tolerance is set in a Parisian brothel in the early 20th century. Bonello talked to THR’s France correspondent Rebecca Leffler about making the film, the pleasure of walking the Cannes red carpet and turn-of-the-century ladies of pleasure.

The Hollywood Reporter: Where did the idea to make a movie about a 20th century brothel come from?

Bertrand Bonello: First of all, I wanted to make a movie about a group of women — a feminine movie. “La Maison Close,” the brothel, is a universe that has a historical and sociological reality, but at the same time represents fantasy. I wanted to play upon that. It allowed me to work with contrasts — the disparity between the luxury of the salons and the real lives that these women led.

THR: What were the challenges of making a period piece?

Bonello: I hope that the movie will be contemporary. When you make a period piece, you always need to talk about the era you’re living in. It was interesting for me to talk about the turn of the century from the end of the 19th century to the new 20th century that was just beginning.

THR: Did you conduct research on life in the brothels?

Bonello: I did a lot of historical research — books that talk about the brothels, texts, paintings. There was so much to draw from. It was a very sociable place. Writers went there and there are many novels about it. My research was more journalistic, but I also tried to write a more personal story.

Was it tough to direct a big group of women? Were you at all intimidated?

Bonello: I was a bit fearful at first because there were a lot of them. But after a few days of shooting, something happened between them — there was a real liberation, just like among the real prostitutes. The idea was to show this group, but focus on each character individually as well.

THR: What was the casting process like for the actresses?

Bonello: It was very, very long. We did nine months of casting - there are a lot of actresses in France! I needed to find girls who stood out individually, but could bring something to the group dynamic. It’s like a bouquet of flowers — you need flowers that are totally different, but that are beautiful together.

THR: The story is very French in terms of its history and its subject matter, but do you think it will have international appeal as well?

Bonello: Yes, I think it will have international appeal because it’s very French, but in a good way. It represents an image of France that makes people dream. I think that of all the films I’ve made, this has the most international appeal by being very French. It’s an idea of a French movie that foreigners love — the costumes, the history, Impressionism.

THR: The film centers around prostitutes, so of course sex is everywhere. Is the film very sexual or more chaste?

Bonello: I asked myself this question for a long time. I didn’t want to have classic sex scenes where we see two bodies rubbing against each other. The brothel is like a theater — we’re cut off from the rest of the world and the bedroom scenes are like a mise-en-scene in a mise-en-scene. It’s a mise-en-scene of masculine fantasies. People were very naked in that era — they wore so many clothes so it was hard to get dressed again afterwards. There was something very sensual about that. The film focuses on fetish more than sexuality. It’s rather prude.

THR: This isn’t your first time in Cannes, or in Competition, what's different this time?

Bonello: For the other films, I wasn’t as conscious of what it represented to be in Cannes. Now, I’m really proud to bring this film to the competition because I understand the beauty of it all and getting to screen in such a theater. It’s really something else, the Competition - it’s the most beautiful movie theater in the world.  

Bertrand Bonello Vital Stats
Film in Cannes: House of Tolerance (In Competition)
Date of birth: Sep. 11, 1968
Nationality: French
Selected Filmography: Something Organic (1998); The Pornographer (2001); Tiresia (2003); On War (2008); House of Tolerance (2011)
Notable awards: FIPRESCI prize International Critics Week for The Pornographer (2001) : Miami Film Festival Cutting the Edge Award On War (2008); Stockholm Film Festival Bronze Horse The Pornographer (2011)