House of Tolerance
Written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, musky, sumptuous dimly lit rooms and occasional detours to a dreamy daytime act as the backdrop to this anti-erotic anti-drama about nineteenth-century women trying to find identity and a footing in society in consideration of end of an era and the confines of their Parisian brothel.
The women at this brothel – ‘Apollonide’ have secondary names as prostitutes. They take up personalities to please men. Some pose as dolls and some as exotic Asians as per the customers’ demand. The only concept of value of prostitutes is, as expected, monetary worth based on youth and physique. Bonello does smartly make one exception to this when it comes to men. The focus here though is the group of prostitutes and specifically the shades of trauma they face. The men are always in the background representing a greater force than individuals. Bonello frames this as more of a “what’s in this ‘house’?” than a “aristocrats are hypocrites” film.
The film does not feel tragic or melodramatic either. It is very much grounded but filmed like a languid dream. The camera movement is slow and mesmerizing, reminiscent of the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien (who coincidentally has a similar film with a similar style, but I’ll leave it for some other time). Consistently interesting shot compositions and some intoxicating sequences are complemented by the editing that establishes a calming flow (even with some structural experiments) till the end. There are some interesting choices made for the soundtrack, but they do work well. Bonello also boldly goes for some stylistic experiments like the split screen, but every frame is so well shot that instead of being distracting the shots pull you in. The beautiful set design which noticeably includes flowers, candles, vases, plants, curtains and mirrors never seems to be taking the foreground. My appreciation is that of how effectively they act as the background in every frame. Same goes for pretty much everything. Nothing here is emphasized specifically. You wonder “How is Bonello boasting without really…..boasting?”. It is fascinating how his vision is like a magnifying glass enhancing every material or non-material idea here. Perhaps a perfect case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
This is one of the finest and most enchanting films of the last decade that I have seen.
Disclaimer: The above review solely illustrates the views of the writer.