Cannes 2011 Review: Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance

The second competition title of Sunday, and a universe away from the gorgeous, subtle brilliance of the morning showing of Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, comes Bertrand Bonello‘s House of Tolerance, or to give it its full French title L’apollonide (Souvenirs de la Maison Close), an intimate portrait of a  brothel in its last days. The press pack promised copious nudity, and the hook of a prostitute who is disfigured by a “client,”  who slashes the corners of her mouth to make a permanent scarred smile. So think the Joker, only with capital knockers.

It’s hard to offer a succinct review, or even a succinct synopsis, since the film consciously resists definition by traditional standards. In other words it’s one of those pretentious films that is usually found making up the Competition picks at Cannes, not likely to trouble the awards, and thus basically represent an opportunity for the selectors to show off their own tastes. But here goes…

House of Tolerance is a film defined by juxtaposition: the director consciously splits the film into two distinct phases – night and day. At night, when the House is open, the director employs an almost Bunuel-esque approach, concentrating his camera to capture the opulence of the House, using languid, longer shots with no urgency to reflect the debauched atmosphere, and offering everything unblinking to our unblinking voyeuristic eye. Bonello also focuses more explicitly on skin and images of the body during the night-time sequences, suggesting both the sexualization of those bodies and fetishizing them for the audience.

Although the Night is a sexualized arena, we don’t see any explicit sexual acts, the film is chaste, despite its flagrant use of nudity (which gives that bias towards images of skin and the body an inert, asexual effect), reflecting the idea that the girls get no pleasure from their situation. Indeed, during the sex scenes, Bonello’s camera focuses on the vacant, sometimes pained expressions of the prostitutes as they “take it” from their customers, rather than titivating with hints of sexual activity, which again kills any hint of eroticism. During these sequences, the film shows its emasculating agenda, as men are portrayed as purely animalistic in most cases (epitomized rather worryingly in a sequence in which one of the girls appears to flirt with a panther that one of the male visitors keeps as a pet), and are frequently depicted wearing masks. So rather than being defined by their expressiveness (i.e. on human terms), the men are generally defined only by their bodies, and more explicitly by their fetishes and fantasies, which the girls recount over breakfast, sneering and jeering. That move has its reasons, as Bonello attempts to shift the blame of exploitation from himself as a film-maker to his male characters (who, in a weirdly ironic move are mostly film-makers themselves).

The acting is not a concern, with almost all of those playing characters able to segue between the numb functionality of their duties (with an engaging dead, glassy look in their eyes) and the more vibrant activities of the daytime, when they are free, and noticeably more affectionate, as they become the young women it is easy to forget they are in light of their profession.

In terms of the visuals, the film does a lot right: presenting a sumptuous aesthetic during the night scenes that says everything about the underlying hedonism (at least from a male perspective) of the House, the look screams opulence and excess. It is a visual style very much influence by the artistic styles of Manet, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec, and thanks to that approach, the film does feel quite authentic in its attempt to capture the spirit and essence of a time. Those scenes set during the day are far differently shot and indeed acted: the palette becomes more realistic and natural, with white light bathing everything, imbuing everything with an odd coldness that seems at odds with Bonello’s attempt to demonize the night, and make the day an arena of safety.

But to have such a stark juxtaposition, of opulence and provocative images of torture and sexual exploitation is too much, and Bonello is clearly having too much fun subjected his female characters to their ordeals, while offering a measly excuse that it is because men are animals. For a director who appears to be committed to showing the horrors of a life dedicated to working in the sex industry (a theme he often explores), this fetishism is and odd and dangerous decision, and it means that the ultimate finale of the film, as the 1900s give way to a depiction of modern Paris and a prostitute sadly exiting the car of a client lands with a whimper and not a bang.

Everything is far too pretentious for its own good though, and other than the authenticity of the aesthetic, there is very little to actually admire about House of Tolerance. It seems an awfully obtuse way to convey the overall message (as quoted by one of the characters) that “fucking is a fuck-awful job”.

The Upside: The visuals are very impressive, and the Joker style make-up is brilliant.

The Downside: It’s ridiculously and impenetrably pretentious, and it’s hard to gain anything that lasts from it at all. Apart from a creeping suspicion of Bonello’s motives, perhaps.

Grade: C-

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Born to the mean streets of Newcastle, England the same year that BMX Bandits was cruelly over-looked for the Best Film Oscar, Simon Gallagher's obsessive love of all things cinema blossomed during that one summer in which he watched Clueless every day for six weeks. This is not a joke. Eventually able to wean himself off that particular dirty habit, and encouraged by the revelation that was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, he then spent many years reviewing films on the underground scene, throwing away thousands of pounds on a Masters Degree in English in the process, before landing feet-first at the doors of British movie site, where you can catch his blend of rapier wit and morbid sardony on a daily basis. Simon is also a hopeless collector of film paraphenalia, and counts his complete Star Wars Mr. Potato Heads collection among his friends.

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