House of Tolerance
House of Tolerance
Hafsia Herzi, Jasmine Trinca, Adele Haenel
Director: Bertrand Bonello
For a film set mostly in a brothel, House of Tolerance is a strangely sex-free spectacle: there's nudity, yes, as the film - set at the turn of the 20th century - chronicles the lives of prostitutes, but copulation is nearly never shown on screen.
In line with his previous films - which featured among them pornographers, transsexuals and free-living cults - Bertrand Bonello's latest offering rarely indulges in straightforward exploitation of its easily caricaturable subjects. Instead, the French filmmaker delivers a record of a line of work like any other, with the young women at the L'Apollonide living lives of tedium and ennui.
As the camera swerves its way through the interiors - the set was built to allow for a fluid flow into rooms and corridors - there's hardly a sense of fin-de-siecle excess. It's as if Bonello is trying to bring to the screen the flip-side of the glamour that characterises the Belle Epoque. A strange stupor slowly poisons the atmosphere, as the escorts and their clientele - most of whom they see regularly and on good terms - lounge around, converse and, occasionally, retire to the rooms for further business.
Not that the title is Bonello's mischievous way of deceiving punters. While the film doesn't go the easy way of portraying an anything-goes ethos in the skin trade, the civility on the surface conceals darker undercurrents of misogyny. Monstrous, violent mistreatment of the workers is rarely seen - except for one woman whose face is carved open by a psychotic customer - but their docility is telling about the gender imbalance here.
And there lies the problem with House of Tolerance. The women all seem independent and intelligent yet they are still pawns living in a doll house controlled by the men - just like the film itself.
While Bonello makes a mild critique of the whole concept of paid sex - which is wrought explicitly at the end, with a coda of a modern-day streetwalker trying to find business on the kerb - the film is not substantial enough in its exploration of the characters' mentality beyond their daily boredom.
This is a case of aesthetics falling short of an intuitive narrative, ennui dressed up as sensuality, and an inadequate picture of amorality and discontent.
Extras: making of the film's prologue; rehearsal footage; interviews