House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide)
The titular House of Tolerance is L’Apollonide, an opulent, high-class Parisian brothel at the arse-end of La Belle Époque, presided over by an elegant, reasonably kindly, madam (Noemie Lvovsky) with her own tame panther and frequented by the great and good (and the not so good), mostly middle aged and elderly men of Parisian society.
The house is a world of lush, decadent luxury, a louche, never-ending party; champagne, absinthe, opium, the upscale johns every whim catered for by expensively underdressed young prostitutes. It is a closed world that stinks, as one girl puts it, of “sperm and champagne.” The girls are beautiful but cloistered. They live comfortably but they can never leave. None have been forced into a life of selling themselves but they are virtual slaves nonetheless, always in debt to the house for room, board, clothes, the doctor who regularly checks them for syphilis. Beautiful birds whose wings have been clipped, they may live in a gilded cage but it’s still a cage. But the party’s almost over. Rents are going up and less promiscuous times are ahead. It seems there’s no place for establishments like L’Apollonide in the twentieth century…
Lavish, sumptuous and, like many of its girls, ravishing to look at, House of Tolerance is a languid study of the oldest profession that also serves as a critique of global capitalism and the current financial recession. While the house is comfortable and safer than the streets, it’s an erotic sweatshop, trapping the girls in a never-ending cycle of debt, using them up and spitting them out while the johns, the men in control, often faceless behind white, featureless masks, are free to enjoy themselves, indulge themselves, without fear of the consequences of their actions.
When one handsome young customer toys with the affections of one of the girls (Alice Barnole), it’s a game for him. When he ties her to the bed and carves up her face with a knife, horrifically disfiguring her, his attitude is simple; he’s paid good money, she’s his to do with as he likes. He’s entitled. He goes virtually unpunished; he’s banned from the establishment and forced to compensate the house (not the girl) for the loss of its investment. For the girl however a life of servitude awaits, forced to skivvy as a maid in this twilight world, her disfigured face a reminder to the other girls of the dangers of their profession. Contrasted with this is the experiences of another girl who succumbs to the ravages of syphilis, her care paid for not by the house but by a caring customer.
With an anachronistic soundtrack that seems to have wandered in from a Baz Luhrmann film (Nights In White Satin? Really?), the film is visually and thematically stunning, shuttling back and forth in time, making extensive use of split-screen to create and obscure meaning. Almost never leaving the confines of the brothel, director Bonello creayes a claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere suffused with bored carnality. There’s little plot, little drama. House of Tolerance is reminiscent of Lizzie Borden’s 1986 study of an upscale Manhattan whorehouse Working Girls; it merely chronicles a moment in time, the passing of an age, through the lives of those who live, work and visit L’Apollonide. By turns grim, erotic, disturbing, cynical and touching, House of Tolerance celebrates the humanity and dignity of the women even as time and circumstance dehumanise them.
Cynically renamed House of Pleasure for the US market, there’s precious little pleasure on offer here but instead there’s a brave, thought-provoking, quietly angry piece of exquisite filmmaking that meditates on the commodification of women and sex, and the wider implications for our society, that will reward repeated viewing.
Written and Directed by:
Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Noemie Lvovsky, Jasmine Trinca, Adele Haenel, Alice Barnole, Iliana Zabeth
2 hours 6 minutes