The dark daily reality of an upscale Belle Epoque brothel is explored in Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance . The women behind the luxurious exterior presented for high paying customers – and their struggles with poverty, violence, and disease – is the focus of the narrative, which hides no detail of their lives. This film doesn’t seek to shock or sensationalize its topic, but takes a genuine interest in the characters, trying to reveal their strengths.
From the start, the film draws you in with sensuous, ethereal imagery that is more akin to a Gustav Klimt painting than the reality of the sex trade. Your eyes relax among the colours and textures, but, soon enough, things get very real. Throughout the rest of the film, you will get to know the inhabitants of this late-19th-century Parisian brothel, as well as their everyday activities, in great detail. The professional presentation seen in the beginning is quickly de-glamorized, making way for the genuine personalities behind it.
The plot in this film is fairly nebulous; it comes across as more of an anthropological study than a story in the conventional sense. Several characters make the focus of the piece, revealing their personalities, relationships, and endless hardships. The figures that stand out the most are Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a teenage newcomer with unrealistic hopes of being financially independent, Clotilde (Celine Sallette), whose is beginning to lose hope having spent twelve years as a sex worker, and Madeleine (Alice Barnole), whose face has been disfigured by a sociopathic customer, and who is typically reduced to a curiosity by the brothel’s current clientele. All of these women are in debt that they can never hope to overcome, and, for the most part, they go about their lives without seeing the light of day.
Fragments from the daily lives of the brothel’s residents ““ dinnertimes, frank discussions, uncomfortable medical checkups, cleanups at the end of the night ““ take up far more screen time than the alluring displays the characters present to the customers. The frequent nudity is shown in a utilitarian light ““ less titillation, more “that’s part of the job, and it’s honestly not that pleasant, so deal with it”. Meanwhile, the sex scenes are downright ominous, with thriller-ish camera angles, sombre music, and the focal point usually being on the one feature of the scene that communicates the least enjoyment, such as the expression in the woman’s eyes, or some particularly awkward movement.
One of the most intriguing features of House of Tolerance is the female characters’ dynamics, and it is fascinating to watch them interact during their off-duty hours. Their camaraderie is quite striking, creating a sense of we’re-in-this-together that manages to offset the overall sense of hopelessness a little. What really dignifies these characters is the way they are portrayed coping with their situations creatively, using every psychological attribute at their disposal, and finding solace in each other’s company.
For all its good points, the film didn’t hold my attention until the very end. It’s not even that long, time-wise ““ not longer than most drama films, anyway ““ but, at one point, it just began to feel like it was taking a little too much time. Without any significant further developments, and with all the points about the characters and their surroundings having already been made, the final 30 minutes dragged on a bit.
House of Tolerance approaches its subject with the appropriate amount of subtlety and emotional gravity. The overall atmosphere is deeply affecting, and a lot of the scenes and images from it will haunt you whether you like it or not. The film also grants its characters a great deal of dignity by focusing on revealing them as people.
House of Tolerance screens twice more as a part of the Visions programme at TIFF on September 13th and 17th. Visit the website for details and ticket information.