|In the House of Tolerance|
House of Tolerance (France, 2011) directed by Bertrand Bonello, 125 minutes
Isabel Bader Theatre, September 10, 2001, 3.15pm
Set in a brothel (euphemistically named a house of tolerance in French) in fin-de-siècle Paris, TIFF reviewer Noah Cowan described the film as possessing “the languid beauty and frank sexuality of French Romantic painting. Its visual sumptuousness lands somewhere between Ingres and Renoir but with stylistic provocations worthy of a time-travelling Baudelaire.”
Hmm, yes, well, if I was to judge the film solely on its physical attributes I would say that the film is beautifully shot, convincingly acted, the clothes are exquisite, and it appears to be historically accurate. Prostitution was confined to the rarefied atmosphere of a grand maison where all were required to dress and comport themselves in an elegant manner (when not having sex with or maiming one of the prostitutes). But let’s examine the reality of the situation that this rosy hued image does not fully explore. The women served almost as indentured servants or slaves trying to work off their debts to madams and could be arbitrarily sold off to other houses on the whim of the madame to eliminate her debts.
In this film, a woman’s face is sliced open along the sides of her mouth creating a horrible rictus that the attacked woman bears forever and that destroys her career and hence her ability to make money. Another young prostitute contracts syphilis, quickly loses her admirers and painfully dies. Here, fifteen year old country girls petition to be included in this happy place and are cheerfully taken on by the madame. The women are forbidden to leave the brothel unless accompanied by a man or the madame lest they be arrested.
This would be in the hypocritical, finger-wagging school of social commentary where on one hand the director seems to sympathetically highlight the real struggles of common women who either have no one to assist them financially or choose this career out of desperation while prettily photographing them in lingerie being compromised by aristocrats and titans of industry in fairly explicit scenes. Sometimes you get the awfully sick feeling that the director is getting turned on by the situation of these women. And the reviewers too (Cowan again):
“And yet there is grace, especially in the daytime moments of sisterly camaraderie and the casual yet oddly affectionate deceits of the madam …”
Oh yes … the beatific shots of the women bathing by a pond on the rare day off or washing each other after a day’s hard work – that must have made it all worthwhile! But this is the best part of the review: "... and sometimes even a gentleman might lose his temper and harm one of the women." referring, oh so delicately, to the slicing of a Madeleine's face.
And clearly the director Bertrand Bonello agrees that these dangers do not surpass the life of the modern prostitute as the film ends with a flash forward to the future where one of the actresses Jasmine Trinca (who played Julie in the section set in 1900) is seen exiting grim faced from a car on a seedy street lined with other prostitutes as if to say at least the girls had pretty clothes and a nice home to live in back in the good old days!