Synopsis: In the Nineteenth Century much of the Parisian sex trade was confined to ‘maisons closes’, populated by elegant madams and a vetted clientele. The ladies were provocatively dressed and, upstairs, occupied numerous boudoirs ready for carnal pleasures. However, even in such a controlled environment, dangers still lurked: disease was rampant and sometimes a gentleman might lose his temper and harm one of the women…
Selected for official competition at Cannes 2011 and nominated for 7 French Césars du Cinema, Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance is a highly stylized look at the final days of a turn-of-the-century brothel in Paris bathed in languid beauty and sexuality.
eyelights: its sumptuous setting. its photography. its atmosphere. its beautiful women. its score. its sound design.
eyesores: its plotlessness. its brief violence.
“If I ever leave this place, I’ll never make love again.”
When I think of prostitution, I think of someone who’s found themselves in dire financial straits, with few options available to them. I mean, not a lot of people would choose prostitution as a career or out of personal enjoyment; it’s just not sustainable.
And yet, I have a difficult time wrapping my mind around it, as I keep telling myself that there are jobs out there – it’s just a question of how receptive you are to them. It’s easier for me to imagine that someone’s fallen into it due to lowly associations.
But there are parts of the world where young women (teenagers, really, if not children) are sold into sexual slavery by their parents because they can’t afford to keep them. It’s a callous reality that’s well beyond me, because it’s such a damning thing to do.
There were also moments in time when women had few options other than marriage/motherhood or the convent; if you were of undesirable stock, for whatever reason, the future was pretty bleak. So perhaps working in a reputable brothel would be a viable option then.
‘L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close)’ is a 2011 motion picture that takes a snapshot of what it was like to live and work in a high class Parisian brothel at the turn of the 20th century. Released in 2012, it was the recipient of seven César nominations.
It’s hard to describe the picture because it’s an observational one: aside for the waning fortunes of the brothel itself, there isn’t much plot to drive the picture; it satisfies itself with watching the goings on of the young women behind those closed doors.
In fact, the whole picture is set there, echoing the sequestered lives that the women experienced as they tried to earn a living. The only exception is a picnic that they have near a river at the midway point. And that’s just a brief moment of escapism for them.
This leads one to imagine that ‘L’Apollonide’ is a raunchy picture, but it’s not: it’s character-driven, though there is a moderate amount of nudity and brief sexual interactions. Most of the nighttime action consists of the intermingling of the girls and clients.
Beyond that, the picture also offers a glimpse into what’s going on behind the scenes, largely due to the hiring of Pauline, a girl who seeks her fortune there; following her revealing interview, she is briefed on the house rules and is taught the basics by the girls.
There’s also a few subplots, including one girl who escapes into opium, one who is struck down by syphilis and another who is disfigured by a client she was sweet on. This last one fascinates some clients because of her mixture of grotesque, beauty and mystery.
She’s also the most compelling character of the piece, though one could hardly call her the lead as every girl gets the spotlight nearly equally. But Madeleine’s heart beats for the man who destroyed her, which is bittersweet and bewildering; you feel her pain.
The performances in this picture are naturalesque, seemingly so effortless that one gets the impression that the actresses weren’t even acting. Because ‘L’Apollonide’ relies on group dynamics, one can easily imagine director Bertrand Bonello filming them hanging around.
What makes ‘L’Apollonide’ compelling, though, is how it largely recreates the epoch and creates an atmosphere; the brothel itself is lush, stunning to look at and it’s lit and shot in appealing ways. One really got the impression that we were transported back in time.
The soundtrack also helped. Though it was anachronistic, being composed of atmospherics or popular songs that wouldn’t have existed then, somehow this managed to elevate the picture. The sound design was very carefully and skillfully crafted by the filmmakers.
The only thing that really put me off of this picture, in truth, is Madeleine’s disfigurement. Though we don’t first see it happen (we are merely treated to its shockingly bloody aftermath), she frequently revisits the moment in her fantasies and that was hard to watch.
In fact, I looked away from one such moment.
But, all told, ‘L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close)’ is an excellent motion picture. I can’t say that it’s a movie that I’d revisit very often, given that it’s more atmospheric than anything else, but it’s certainly a noteworthy and recommended experience.
It’s probably better than the real thing.
Date of viewing: June 9, 2017