House of Tolerance

Bertrand Bonello‘s 2011 House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close) intertwines the multiple stories of women living and working in an upscale Parisian brothel. Lengthy synopsis as follows (via TIFF):

“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.”

Trailer can be streamed down below (sorry, no english subtitles for this one):

House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close)