Arguably writer-helmer Bertrand Bonello’s most straightforward pic, and none the worse for it, “House of Tolerance” explores life in an upmarket brothel at the turn of the last century. Although there’s heaps of nudity, disturbing violence, weirdness and a general air of bored erotic lassitude, all hallmarks of Bonello’s work (“The Pornographer,” “Tiresia,” “On War”), pic also presents an accessible, credible portrait of what life was like for sex workers way back when, with all the career’s pleasures (few) and perils (many). Subject matter and comely cast should get offshore distribs casting come-hither looks in the pic’s direction.
Unfolding mostly within the confines of a single building and featuring a would-be utopia not unlike the commune in “On War,” the story takes place in the Apollonide, a bordello run by former hooker Marie-France (helmer-thesp Noemie Lvovsky). Madame Marie-France treats her femme staff relatively well for the time, apart from the fact that she docks money from their earnings for all their fancy finery, keeping them permanently in debt and therefore virtual slaves to the “house of tolerance,” as such places were known then.
Of the 12 femmes working there, about six come to the fore as defined characters. At 28, embittered Clotilde (Celine Sallette, “Regular Lovers”) is nearly on the scrap heap, but her great legs still make her a favorite of a dilettante artist (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), with whom Clotilde is half in love. Cheerful Julie (Italian thesp Jasmine Trinca) also has a regular john (Jacques Nolot) who dotes on her, but not so deeply that he’ll help her out of her debt, despite his fortune. Statuesque beauty Lea (Adele Haenel) has many admirers whom she quietly despises; Algerian Samira (Hafsia Herzi) is more easygoing, and is happy to show the ropes to new girl Pauline (Iliana Zabeth, whose zaftig curves are perfect for the period).
Unluckiest of all is Madeleine (newcomer Alice Barnole), a sweet-natured naif whose trusting nature ruins her career when one client (Laurent Lacotte) ties her to a bed and then slashes her cheeks with a knife, leaving her hideously scarred and thus earning her the nickname “the Woman Who Laughs,” an allusion to the Victor Hugo novel “The Man Who Laughs.” Even so, she becomes an object of fascination to some of the clients, including one (helmer Xavier Beauvois) who pays just to sit and talk with her.
Bonello leaves the aud in no doubt that theirs is a hard, risky job. A chilling scene depicting the women being examined by a doctor (played by a real gynecologist, per press notes), searching for any traces of disease or pregnancy, underscores the potential deadliness of the profession at the time. Elsewhere, mention is made of ridiculous scientific studies from the period, then accepted as fact, that prostitutes had smaller heads than average, just like thieves, a supposed sign of low intelligence.
These women, however, are clearly not stupid, just desperate, although the script makes it clear that most of them freely chose this profession rather than become seamstresses, servants or agricultural workers. They may fake their pleasure for the clients, but there are still good times to be had downstairs before retiring to the bedroom, chatting, playing games and drinking endless bottles of champagne while wearing the fanciest, gaudiest outfits high-class brothel money can buy. If the Cannes competition jury gave out prizes for costumes, Anais Romand would be a prohibitive favorite for her intricate, lusciously detailed work here.
Bonello’s regular d.p. and partner Josee Deshaies does similarly exquisite work with the lensing, subtly modulating the lighting schemes from warm, golden hues to colder tones for the moments of quirky surrealism that give the pic a distinctive flavor, even if they’re a bit silly. Likewise, onetime musician Bonello’s self-penned score alongside use of playfully anachronistic soul music and ’60s garage-band tunes inject a contempo sensibility that keeps the period flavor from becoming too cloying. Without these perverse (not in the sexy sense) touches, the pic might have risked playing like “The Best Little Whorehouse in Paris” or a violent reworking of Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby.”