Though it’s set largely in 1900, Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance has one foot firmly in the 21st Century. The tale of a Parisian brothel called L’Appollonide, it luxuriates in the decadent trappings of its era but infuses it with a sensibility is decidedly modern. This is no straightforward period piece – Bonello peppers its action with modern, poppy tics that create a sense that time is a slippery, fluid thing. When the film closes with shots of prostitutes on the streets of modern day Paris it’s not jarring so much as it is a natural extension of what has come before – the time and place may change, but the business stays the same.
Shot with a lens that seems to be coated in velvet, the dreamlike quality of House of Tolerance betrays the immediacy of the stories of the women at its heart. The camera drifts through the curtains and hallways of the brothel, languishing in its gorgeous set and costume design and lingering on the female forms that dwell within, but behind this facade of pleasure and excess lies something more sinister. There are bursts of sudden violence and sadness, and a constant sense of unease pervades every frame, from the murky black shadows in every corner, to the melancholy off-screen piano music that drifts in and out of the mix, to the jaguar skulking in the corner. Bonello never shies away from the ickiness of their business, either – champagne baths are cold, sticky and awkward, sex is passionless and sometimes downright disturbing – when one client asks that a girl be dressed and and act like a lifeless, jointed doll the film turns into a creepy version of that scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and disease is a death sentence that hangs over everyone’s head.
Most fascinating, though, is the relationships of these women: to each other, and to their home. The only genuine love expressed in the whole film is between the girls, and Bonello depicts their affection for each other with a tenderness and warmth that on occasion dispels the shadows the hang over everything. Their relationship to L’Appollonide, however, is more complicated. They are cared for and looked after by the house’s Madame, but they are constantly accruing debt so that they can never leave. For all its luxuries, it is no more than a prison, and it feels like it: the only scene set outside its four walls only reinforces the oppressive atmosphere upon our return.
First and foremost, House of Tolerance is the work of a stylist, and story takes a backseat to the film’s potent atmosphere, even as your investment in the characters grows. Bonello is constantly surprising, employing split-screens, pop songs, unexpected edits and an ever-shifting sense of time that means you’re never quite at ease with what you’re watching. As the film approaches its finale and everything comes crumbling to the ground, figuratively if not literally, the images become so abstracted that we seem to leave any recognizably real world and enter a kind of dream state. In light of this, the closing images of modern-day Paris show us that Bonello knows exactly what he’s doing – the world he’s created in House of Tolerance is intoxicating, but the reality of prostitution is sobering as hell.