Posted May 26, 2012 by David Watson in DVD/Blu-ray
 
 

House Of Tolerance


The titular House of Tolerance is L’Apollonide, an opulent, high-class Parisian brothel at the arse-end of La Belle Époque, presided over by an elegant, reasonably kindly, madam (Noemie Lvovsky) with her own tame panther and frequented by the great and good (and the not so good), mostly middle aged and elderly men of Parisian society.

The titular House
of Tolerance is L’Apollonide, an opulent, high-class Parisian brothel at the
arse-end of
La
Belle Époque, presided over by an
elegant, reasonably kindly, madam (Noemie Lvovsky) with her own tame panther and
frequented by the great and good (and the not so good), mostly middle aged and
elderly men of Parisian society.

The
house is a world of lush, decadent luxury, a louche, never-ending party;
champagne, absinthe, opium, the upscale johns every whim catered for by
expensively underdressed young prostitutes. It is a closed world that stinks,
as one girl puts it, of “sperm and champagne.” The girls are beautiful but cloistered. They live comfortably but they can
never leave. None have been forced
into a life of selling themselves but they are virtual slaves nonetheless,
always in debt to the house for room, board, clothes, the doctor who regularly
checks them for syphilis.
Beautiful birds whose wings have been clipped, they may live in a gilded
cage but it’s still a cage. But
the party’s almost over. Rents are
going up and less promiscuous times are ahead. It seems there’s no place for establishments like
L’Apollonide in the twentieth century…

Lavish,
sumptuous and, like many of its girls, ravishing to look at, House of Tolerance
is a languid study of the oldest profession that also serves as a critique of
global capitalism and the current financial recession. While the house is comfortable and
safer than the streets, it’s an erotic sweatshop, trapping the girls in a
never-ending cycle of debt, using them up and spitting them out while the
johns, the men in control, often faceless behind white, featureless masks, are
free to enjoy themselves, indulge themselves, without fear of the consequences
of their actions.

When
one handsome young customer toys with the affections of one of the girls (Alice
Barnole
), it’s a game for him.
When he ties her to the bed and carves up her face with a knife,
horrifically disfiguring her, his attitude is simple; he’s paid good money,
she’s his to do with as he likes.
He’s entitled. He goes
virtually unpunished; he’s banned from the establishment and forced to
compensate the house (not the girl) for the loss of its investment. For the girl however a life of
servitude awaits, forced to skivvy as a maid in this twilight world, her
disfigured face a reminder to the other girls of the dangers of their
profession. Contrasted with this
is the experiences of another girl who succumbs to the ravages of syphilis, her
care paid for not by the house but by a caring customer.

With
an anachronistic soundtrack that seems to have wandered in from a Baz
Luhrmann
film (Nights In White Satin?
Really?), the film is visually and thematically stunning, shuttling back
and forth in time, making extensive use of split-screen to create and obscure
meaning. Almost never leaving the
confines of the brothel, director Bonello creates a claustrophobic,
oppressive atmosphere suffused with bored carnality. There’s little plot, little drama. House of Tolerance is reminiscent of Lizzie Borden’s
1986 study of an upscale Manhattan whorehouse Working Girls; it merely
chronicles a moment in time, the passing of an age, through the lives of those
who live, work and visit L’Apollonide.
By turns grim, erotic, disturbing, cynical and touching, House of
Tolerance celebrates the humanity and dignity of the women even as time and
circumstance dehumanise them.

Cynically
renamed House of Pleasure for the US market, there’s precious little
pleasure on offer here but instead there’s a brave, thought-provoking, quietly
angry piece of exquisite filmmaking that meditates on the commodification of
women and sex, and the wider implications for our society, that will reward
repeated viewing.


David Watson

 
David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com