House of Tolerance (L'Apollonide, sourvenirs de la maison close): Cannes Review

Cannes Film Festival
The heavy perfumes of a turn-of-the-century Paris brothel turn sad and claustrophobic in this atmospheric swan song.

The lives of Paris brothel workers are anything but sexy in Bertrand Bonello's period piece.

CANNES -- Both an elegiac salute to the demise of Paris’s fin-de-siècle brothels and a poetic critique of the white slave trade, Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance fascinates with its exquisite period atmosphere and repulses in its cruel spectacle of young women trapped in a life from which there is practically no exit. Despite plentiful nudity, there is very little a contemporary viewer will find sexy here, though the title alone should elicit strong initial commerce from art house regulars and beyond.

On the down side, there are longeurs during which the attention wanders in the course of an atmosphere piece lasting over two hours. The fact is, the world’s oldest professsion is also the world’s oldest film subject and, from Pretty Baby to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, to mention but two titles that readily spring to mind, brothels have been cinematically explored high and low.

Bonello’s direction is deft and often dreamlike, keeping close to the dozen-odd pretty girls who inhabit the house and letting their stories and personalities overlap. The audience is invited to share in their unhappy fate as they entertain well-bred rich men all night, every night. It’s all work and no play, yet ominously, the former seamstresses and laundresses find it easier than their previous jobs.

The character who emerges most poignantly is Madeleine [newcomer Alice Barnole], baldly known as “the Jew.”  Her delicate pre-Raphaelite features fall victim to a gentlman-maniac who slashes her mouth with a knife, leaving a hideous double scar that freezes her face in a Joker-like laugh.  As “the Woman Who Laughs,” her new monicker, she is exiled to the kitchen and laundry room, until being summoned to appear as a sex freak for a perverse libertine soiree, very reminiscent of the scene in Abdellatif Kechiche’s recent Black Venus

Though all the residents look lost and depressed, a sultry, quick-witted Algerian girl [the proud Hafsia Herzi] seems better able to defend herself than an aging opium smoker. The laughing Julie [Italian actress Jasmine Trinca], nicknamed Kaka for her erotic speciality, and the buxom 16-year-old newby Pauline [non-pro Iliana Zabeth] illustrate the different destinies awaiting them.

Faced with the constant threat of syphilis and pregnancy, the girls submit to regular gynecological exams in fear and trepidation. They live like bonded servants to the madame [played by a worldly and maternal Noémie Lvovsky], who advances them money for their perfume and designer dresses, thus keeping them in debt to her. The madame herself has two small kids and entrepreneurial worries.  The rent is rising and the houses of tolerance are closing as the girls take to the streets, casting a twilight glow on an entire way of life.

Coming from the director of The Pornographer and Tiresia, the film takes a very relaxed attitude to filming its attractive female cast in corsets, transparent undergarments and full frontal nudity. Bonello’s empathy with these sensual Odalisques is such, however, that they never come off as sexually arousing. The specter of the Woman Who Laughs walking around the house like a wounded ghost is enough to quench any desire.

What makes this film stand out is its lyrical cinematography [by Josée Deshaies] and costume design [courtesy of Anais Romand] that create a lush claustrophobia highlighting the golden cage these high-class prostitutes of yore lived in.

Alain Guffroy’s turn of the century sets immerse this closed world in its own unique atmosphere of heavy perfumes and bored captivity, eerily visualized as a domesticated black panther on a leash that one of the aristocratic gentlemen likes to bring with him.

The film’s most questionable artistic choice — though one that many viewers will ultimately side with — is the unexpected use of modern music in several crucial scenes. The aching emotional wail of The Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin is a strong statement that this is not just a period film, but it relates a contemporary tragedy as well.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Production company: Les Films du Lendemain, My New Picture in association with Arte France Cinema
Cast: Noémie Lvovsky, Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Jasmine Trinca, Adèle Haenel, Alice Barnole, Iliana Zabeth, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Xavier Beauvois, Jacques Nolot, Laurent Lacotte.
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello
Producers: Kristina Larsen, Bertrand Bonello
Director of photography: Josée Deshaies
Production designer: Alain Guffroy
Music: Bertrand Bonello
Costumes: Anais Romand
Editor: Fabrice Rouaud
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
125 minutes