House of Tolerance is a film about a Parisian brothel, L’Apollonide, at the dawn of the 20th century. The film stays within the walls, creating a sense of rich-coloured claustrophobia for the girls and the audience. This is made particular use of in their one day out, when the colours become vibrant citrus and you share their sense of release as they frolic and take the piss out of their clients.
The big surprise of this film is that, although having all the elements to make an erotic film, it isn’t. Breasts, corsets, beautiful women, a pet panther, champagne baths and sex don’t add up to eroticism, although they do add up to a sensuality of colours and textures, which some reviewers have compared to paintings by Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec.
The film is ultimately about the deep bond between the girls that live and work together, sharing each other’s hopes and fears. The ‘emotional skeleton’ of the film, as Director Bertrand Bonello calls it, is the girl who encounters a sadistic client who leaves her with a mouth like the Joker in Batman. Bonello admits that he was haunted by this image from the 1928 film ‘The Man Who Laughs’ directed by Paul Leni, originally a novel by Victor Hugo. This moment in the story recurs thanks to the music-like rhythm of the storytelling.
The film has been quite rightly praised for its soundtrack, perhaps because the obvious instrument would have been the accordion, but instead you are blasted with the gritty-gorgeous ‘Bad Girl’ by Lee Moses and ‘The Right To Love You’ by The Mighty Hannibal.
House of Tolerance was shot in a castle in the suburbs of Paris, in which the cast lived and filmed. Bonello said that he wanted to recreate his childhood in Nice, ‘I was a kid with many intellectuals, painters, writers sleeping on the couch. Maybe that fed me a lot, I am like Proust and his madeleine’, he jokes, ‘running after that again and again.’ And as for the surrealist image of the sperm tears? ‘Should I say the truth or not?’ Bonello asks. He decides to go for it. ‘I received a text from someone who had that dream. I have no imagination, but I like that it’s a dreamy image, something very realistic and the same time because you feel like the girls are being filled up all day and you can cry it out at night.’
Philip French writing for The Observer commended on the non-fiction aspects of the film. He wrote ‘there is enough detail about money, cosmetics, hygiene, sexually transmitted diseases, theatrical deportment and authentic camaraderie to qualify the film as a kind of documentary.’ The official non-fiction elements of the story include the two letters, the first from the madame begging help when the rent is put up, the second to a man who is supporting his favourite girl, but no longer wishing to see her, since she has syphilis and he doesn’t want to infect his family.
Each prostitute, as well as the house itself, which the director said was also cast as a character, has her own fate. Particularly interesting is the opium addict who starts the film saying ‘I could sleep for a hundred years I’m so tired’ and ends the film still a prostitute, but a hundred years later in contemporary Paris. Some critics have argued that this is a statement about the eternal, unchanging nature of prostitution, but Bonello says that for him, who was looking at the girl in the shot, rather than at the background, it was more an attempt to say ‘this girl’s destiny is to be a prostitute forever.’
By Tessa Ditner
House of Tolerance Production year: 2011 Country: France Cert (UK): 18 Runtime: 122 mins Director: Bertrand Bonello France – Color – 125 mins -1:1.85 – Dolby SRD Cast: Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Alice Barnole, Adèle Haenel, Jasmine Trinca, Iliana Zabeth, et Noémie Lvovsky. Judith Lou Levy, Anaïs Thomas, Pauline Jacquard, Maïa Sandoz, Joanna Grudzinska, Esther Garrel. Xavier Beauvois, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Jacques Nolot, Laurent Lacotte. Production: Les Films du Lendemain Distribution: Haut et Court