Sublime contrasts in House of Tolerance
by Fabien Lemercier
16/05/2011 - A superb display of cinematographic talent defines Bertrand Bonello’s fascinating and sublime House of Tolerance [trailer], screening in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival (May 11-22). Set almost exclusively in a luxurious Parisian brothel in its last days (1899–1900), the film successfully exalts a very naked beauty and explores sexuality without resorting to pornography, whilst unveiling with a strong suggestive power a mysterious feminine world.
Corsets, sumptuous naked bodies, a stunning salon where, in the words of Baudelaire, "order and beauty, luxury, calm and sensual pleasure” reign. Among black velvet bedroom walls the women’s bodies are illuminated as they go about their “commerce”, and the artistry of Bonello and his DoP Josée Deshaies is unleashed in a veritable dazzle of contrasted colours. But this marvellous "painting" would only be a feast for the eyes if it did not value the remarkable actresses whose performances are testament to the meticulous care with which the director highlights them.
Bonello has said that actresses were fighting to participate in the film, which had a tight budget of €3.8m, a trivial sum given the wealth parading on screen. This boldness was rewarded by powerful, nuanced roles, and in particular strong performances from Céline Sallette, Italy’s Jasmine Trinca, Alice Barnole, Hafsia Herzi, Adèle Haenel and Iliania Zabeth.
Directed masterfully and sternly by its madam (Noémie Lvovsky), who is a stickler for quality of service, hygiene and tending to the books, the “House of Tolerance” houses and employs a dozen prostitutes (each with evocative nicknames), most of whom have been sold by other establishments. The girls sometimes dream of buying back their debt from their boss to regain their freedom, but they have no illusions, as they spend their nights working and their days relaxing and preparing.
Divided into three parts (the latter part of the 19th century, the dawn of the 20th and the ending), House of Tolerance chronicles daily life and depicts an affective portrait of women trapped in a golden cage. Through a newcomer to the brothel, Bonello steadily unveils how this excluded world works, but also saves some surprises, both musical (modern songs, such as “Nights in White Satin”) and visual (photo credits, split screen, candlelight, flashbacks, mirrors). A resounding success of form and substance despite some slightly drawn-out scenes, the film – which opens with many possible messages to decipher and interpret – is first and foremost a declaration of love towards these women, towards the actresses and towards cinema.
(Translated from French)