L’Apollonide (House of Tolerance, 2011)
Bertrand Bonello’s provocative tableau vivant that explores the female sexuality set in a brothel at the turn of the 20th century.
Bertrand Bonello is one of the main representatives of the French wave Cinéma du Corps (Cinema of the Bodies/Cadavers). His films are always provocative and their main subject is sex in different expressions. Bonello became well known and recognizable in 2001 with his second feature-film, Le Pornographe (The Pornographer). Ten years after, in 2011, he shoots his fifth feature-film L’Apollonide – Souvenirs de la Maison Close (House of Tolerance) which participated in the official competition of the 64th Cannes Film Festival.
The story is set in the late 19th and early 20th century in a luxurious Parisian brothel. Madame Marie-France (Noémie Lvovsky) tries to keep all of her customers satisfied with girls and experiences for everyone’s taste. There are girls from the Arab colonies like Samira (Hafsia Herzi), the “Doll” Clotilde (Céline Sallette), the kinky Italian Julie (Jasmine Trinca) and “The Woman Who Laughs” Madeleine (Alice Barnole). The latest addition of the house will be a sixteen-year-old, Léa (Adèle Haenel) who was sent in town by her parents and still believes that she will stay free and independent in that kind of work. Their lives are intimately tied to the choices of their clients but also to the historical changes of the era. Dangerous games, costumes, extreme roles, passions, wild animals, pain, syphilis, fear, and death are all blended on the canvas of L’Apollonide.
Bonello does not try to escape from his favorite themes that gained him fame, moreover he prefers to indulge in these and he upgrades them both visually and aesthetically. He decides to avoid the brutal depiction of prostitution as he had done in the past (Tiresia) and he prefers to set up an idyllic dollhouse where all the necessary drama is enclosed. Prepared with theatrical precision and rigor, the brothel will be the perfect place to reveal everything that was hidden by that era’s pseudo respectability. Inside the rooms there will always be space for any sexual perversion, even for those that seem extreme, if the price is analogically sufficient. The good manners’ rules could be forgotten and confined just verbally. The impressive gowns can simultaneously hide equally exciting lingerie. Love may be mixed with sex or it could just be another pretext. Luxury is beautifully combined with the lower basic instincts while pomposity can appear only during the role-plays. In the brother a latent equality between men and women, between the upper and lowest class could exist but in fact this is just another balance of mutual compensations.
The main difference of L’Apollonide with other films that are dealing with similar themes is of course the unique approach of the director. Bonello tries and succeeds not simply to offer another male voyeuristic approach to his spectacle. Instead he is focused on the women and their role in this brothel. He witnesses their daily lives, their outfits, their problems, their thoughts and their care for each other, and he does that using a theoretical distancing in order not to provoke any more. The naked women are, for Bonello, the parts of an artistic tableau vivant that he wants to observe and not a cheap picture for exploitation. Their lives are depicted through seemingly unrelated scenes which in fact complement their personal stories. The superficial looseness and blissfulness are not able to cover what really happens to them. They also live on the verge of two eras. The sham romanticism of the 19th century will give his place to the pragmatic cynicism of the 20th and the girls will be the first who should adapt to that change.
Bertrand Bonello likes to move in closed spaces, he always handles them perfectly. Here he manages to retain his familiar claustrophobic feeling but he is moving in a space so open visually that gives to himself a fresh special freedom. He also shows that he has gained the same freedom in manipulating the intense emotions of his heroines and in that way he can include them in any situation. L’Apollonide is a movie of balanced grandeur that never forgets that belongs to a corrupted society. The film keeps the rough romanticism of Giacomo Puccini‘s La Bohème and becomes as sensitive as Nights In White Satin by The Moody Blues. Bertrand Bonello reaches a new detached level of sensual eroticism without ever being a judge of the passions and thus creates his most artistic film so far.