mon 22/07/2024

House of Tolerance | reviews, news & interviews

House of Tolerance

House of Tolerance

An ornate depiction of Belle Epoque brothel life is betrayed by a spasm of misogyny

Ladies of the night: Alice Barnole, Adèle Haenel, and Jasmine Trinca in 'House of Tolerance'The Works.

In his previous films, the French director Bernardo Bonello has demonstrated a non-judgemental affinity for pornographers, prostitutes, and other transgressors. In his latest, House of Tolerance (House of Pleasures in the US), his sympathy is with the languid courtesans of a doomed high-class fin-de-siècle Parisian brothel, who are united in their contempt for the wealthy, condescending men who subject them to fetishes, diseases, and violence.

Early in this gloomy elegy to the organised vice of the Belle Epoque, which implies the maisons de tolérance weren’t much safer then the sordid lower-class maisons d’abattage, the beautiful Madeleine (Alice Barnole) trustingly allows one of her regulars to tie her up and caress her with a knife. She protests when he starts to probe her mouth with it; then, suddenly, her face is awash with blood. Thereafter, it is seen in a rictus smile that stretches up toward her ears on either side, like that of Lon Chaney in The Man Who Laughs (1928), recurrent dreams of which inspired Bonello.

Partaking of Madeleine’s stream of consciousness, House of Tolerance is itself the stuff of dreams, memories, and quasi-pornographic fantasies, one of which goes beyond the pale and suggests Bonello’s affection for the prostitutes is twinned with misogyny. After the film shows Madeleine’s client slitting her right cheek, as recalled by her toward the end, it arrives at a climactic shot that visualises a fantasy she recounted to him. (It refers also to her colleague Julie’s quip that she told her favorite patron she would pluck out her eyes so he could have extra holes to penetrate.) In Madeleine’s fantasy, re-edited by her after the assault, she weeps rivulets of semen that course down her face and nestle in the creases where her flesh was riven. Filmed by Josée Deshaies, Bonello’s wife, who has photographed all five of his movies, the shot arguably condemns male desire, disgust, and hatred for sexually available women, but its self-conscious surrealism can’t mask its loathsomeness – it’s like something Dalí and Buñuel might have dreamed up had they worked in the San Fernando Valley in the 1990s.

Where the films succeeds is in its depiction of the courtesans as a tenderly supportive group – they cuddle together at night and are paroled by the madam (played by director Noémie Lvovsky) for an idyllic déjeuner sur l’herbe (pictured above). Thanks to outstanding performances, they also come vividly alive as individuals. Aside from Madeleine, who works at the brothel as a domestic after her disfigurement, there is Clotilde (Céline Sallette), at 28 a depressed 12-year-veteran of the house who succumbs to opium addiction, and sullen Léa (Adèle Haenel), bored by being asked to perform as a mechanical doll by her chief client but delighted at the prospect of seeing the Bastille Day fireworks. 

Bonello and Deshaies sustain the sombre mood with Courbet-like chiaroscuro lighting

There is also gregarious Julie (Jasmine Trinca), the joker in the pack, who puts on a brave face when she fails a medical for syphilis; the Algerian Samira (Hafsia Herzi), who is reduced to sobs when she reads a prejudicial scientific study that says prostitutes and criminals are equally retarded; and the 16-year-old newcomer Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a phlegmatic country girl who adapts well to having sex in a bath full of champagne and impersonating a geisha but leaves because the work offers no future.

“House of Tolerance” is claustrophobic and somnolent. Bonello and Deshaies sustain the sombre mood with Courbet-like chiaroscuro lighting. The screen sometimes splits into triptychs or is quartered to show a cross-section of activities: the brothel is shared by the prostitutes, the madam, and her two kids, and (despite the presence of her pet panther) half the activities there are quietly quotidian. Juxtaposing raucous R&B by Lee Moses and the Mighty Cannibal and the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” with bits of “La Bohème” and Bonello's own miniaturistic piano plinks and cymbal shimmers, the soundtrack connotes the timeless tragedy of the working girl’s lot, as does the contemporary coda showing hookers (a modern Clotilde among them) working the traffic. But one vicious money shot brings down the whole house.

Watch the trailer to House of Tolerance



Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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