House of Tolerance

House of Tolerance (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Though “House of Tolerance,” written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, takes place in a brothel and its subjects are prostitutes, one can recognize immediately that the picture is neither bawdy nor meretricious. It easily could have been about appealing to the lowest common denominator, titillation rather than an exploration of a certain occupation in a specific period. Instead, it is about something more. Its final scene is inspired.

Part of the story takes place in November 1899 when Madeleine (Alice Barnole) was still known as the Jewess rather than The Woman Who Laughs. The other unfolds in March 1900 when sixteen-year-old Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) enters Apollonide for the first time and loses her virginity in a bathtub to a customer who is sexually aroused by the taste of wine on a woman’s body. But the story is not about Madeleine or Pauline exclusively. It is about their life inside a brothel—sleeping during the day and working come sundown.

Like in all great movies, details are critical. We get a feel of what the women talk about while preparing to present themselves to men who pay a lot of money to get special attention. One makes a comment about a man’s crooked penis. Another expresses that she might be developing feelings toward a recurrent customer. And all the while the camera pans around room. Their job may be dangerous but elegance is reflected on the paintings on the wall, the fur carpets, the lavish curtains, the intricate dresses they wear. A fantasy is created in front of our very eyes and, in a way, we, too, are customers.

A theme involves the physical appearance of a man being a poor indicator of what he is really into once he is in the bedroom. I found it surprising that the more arousing scenes involve the women just sitting around waiting to be noticed. This is because the moment a woman leaves the room with a client, anxiety is introduced. Will she get hurt? Physically, she can get beaten, wounded, or catch a disease. Equally important is what is contained in the mind and heart—suspicions, disappointments. These are stirred just about every time they provide a service.

One of the prostitutes makes a remark that no matter how much they work, it is unlikely that they will be able to dissolve their debts. In context, the line refers to a pecuniary matter. The subtext, however, is the trauma involved in one choosing to sell her body. I use the word “choose” because these women are aware that they do have a choice to leave and look for another job.

“L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close” is a physically rich film in that one can extract plenty of meaning by paying close attention to how bodies are used or presented. When a woman is waiting to be picked by a client, does she look bored? Anxious? Neutral? From there, we can get an idea about how she perceives her occupation. But that is what fascinates: we can only get an idea. The truth comes out the next afternoon when everybody in the house has had a chance to rest her bones, when she is not playing a role, when she is only around her girlfriends—practically family at this point—while waiting for sundown and the next grind.

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