One of the most enlightened and adventurous films released in cinemas for some while.
Known alternatively as ‘L’Apollonide’, cynically retooled for the US as ‘House of Pleasures’ and then shorn of its delicious suffix, ‘Souvenirs de la Maison Close’ (‘Memories of a Bordello’), House of Tolerance is a subtly licentious provocation from French director Bertrand Bonello (The Pornographer) in which the inner workings of a Parisian brothel are languorously moulded into a biting metaphor on the ills of global capitalism.
Despite its luxuriant Belle Époque milieu – all velvet, silk and feathers – the film’s closest cinematic kissing-cousin is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, another tale of a commercial dream gone sour; one where the business of prostitution is the moral representative of commerce at large.
There is no traditional three-act plot here, we are simply asked to monitor the daily lives of a diverse group of prostitutes who cosily cater for all perversions.These women – each one delivering a remarkable, committed performance – give the impression of dominance, but as time rolls on, faces are disfigured, social diseases wreak havoc, drug habits decrease sexual productivity and the ravages of age take their aesthetic toll.
All the while, the madame of the house purports to safeguard her beauties when in fact she’s doing her very best to trap them inside a system which hinges on their willingness to self- abase for cash. Bar a couple of rural outings, House of Tolerance rarely leaves the confines of the brothel. In so doing, the claustrophobia of the environment really hits home, addressing a shortfall in the film’s US title: no pleasure is taken from this work.
With its seemingly random deployment of garish anachronisms (a cathartic rendition of The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’) and merrily ‘what-the-fuck?’ set-pieces (a prostitute offering a neat new spin on crying salt tears), Bonello’s brilliant and audacious film is easy to dismiss.
But expend some intellectual elbow grease on decoding the various sounds and images, characters and relationships, motivations and plot mechanisms, and you’ll discover one of the most enlightened and adventurous films released in cinemas for some while. Its final shot, too, is a sock to the gut from which you may not recover.
Bawdy French frolics. Again.
It’s Christina Aguilera’s Burlesque for Sartrean fops!
Dazzling and deep. You’ll want to go back for more.