House of Tolerance

Cannes Film Festival 2011 (World premiere)–A new film about sexual commerce and the often cruel ways women are bartered by damaged and insecure men in order to possess them, French director Bertrand Bonello never manages the clarity or emotional pull to allow his new feature “House of Tolerance,” to kick into an unexpected gear and rise above the standard issue.  The new work premiered in the competition series at the Cannes Film Fest.

 

Bonello has been pushing the boundaries of sexuality in mainstream cinema dating to his second feature, the 2001 “The Pornographer,” where he notoriously photographed non-simulated sexual activity. Saying he has wanted to make a film about the re-opening of brothels in modern Paris, the director noted the first film on prostitutes occurred in 1900, or contemporaneous with the invention of the medium.

 

The French director has a fine visual sense, aided by his very gifted cinematographer Josee Deshaies. Most importantly, he has assembled a first-rate collection of startlingly beautiful French actresses who throw off with abandon, energy and release the plaintive, quietly sad desperation of economically disadvantaged women plying their trade at the turn of the 20th century. Too often the women are types rather than intricately drawn characters given the range and freedom to articulate their particular hell.

The movie is set between the end of 1899 and the early months of the new century. The movie’s French title, “L’Apollonide,” references the name of the house of ill-repute that showcases roughly twelve women, most of them poor or indebted, essentially bonded laborers who enact elaborate sexual role-playing for the gilded class of the Paris social elite.

 

Indeed, with a few exceptions, Bonello stages a largely unthreatening social and sexual milieu for his women, possessed of a joie de vivre that seemingly positions his work as more a lament for a vanished age than a trenchant analysis of the so-called “closed houses,” that flourished during the period.

The madam, Marie-France (Noemie Lvovsky), is imperial and cultured, though obviously possessing a personal familiarity with the role of the courtesan. She’s sympathetic toward the young women, but she knows she holds all the power.

 

She’s a widow trying to raise two small children. The strongest passages are in the opening half hour, where the women are able to assert some aspect of identity or personality, like the beautiful Samira (Hafsia Herzi). The women are apparently nonjudgmental, and have an ease and comfort, even the willingness to laugh and play around in each others’ company. From the start, “House of Tolerance,” lacks the tension and zip required to push and deepen the story.

The introduction of a virginal new girl, Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a parochial girl of fifteen who writes a letter of introduction to the madam in order to secure employment, even using her parents’ consent to certify her age. Her appearance allows Bonello to navigate the milieu, explaining the particulars, habits and social customs of the directors. It’s all mechanized, effective and impersonal, a point driven home when he carves the screen into four square panels to synchronize the action.

The air of nonchalance and social transgression goes too far when a mentally damaged interloper cruelly disfigures the face of Madeleine (Alice Barnole), “the Jewess,” and the company’s star attraction. She had the temerity to relate the specifics of a dream to her assailant. The dark, disturbing act not only vividly illustrates the danger zone the women operate under, it points out their social inferiority and lack of political redress.

The film exists, to be sure, but it brings little new or of importance to the eroticized, dangerous world the women are heir to. It copies far superior works, like a drugged out opium smoker who repeatedly mimics the exact movements of Julie Christie in Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”

Much of the second half plot deal with the efforts of a sympathetic powerful man (played by “Of Gods and Men” filmmaker Xavier Beauvois) to help rehabilitate the life of Madeleine. It’s the one Bonello ties to personalize the clients, painting them largely as insufferable egoists and wastrels who draw on extensive family bank accounts and inheritances to subsidize their reckless sexual adventuring.

As changing economic and social habits threaten the livelihood of the house, the balance of the script plays off the impending crisis of the house’s shutdown against the collective’s desire to fight back. “House of Tolerance” is not a particularly bad or uninteresting movie, just unfocused. As if to enliven the already provocative material, Bonello inserts anachronistic pop music, the most egregious and perverse the Moody Blues’ 1967 classic “Nights in White Satin,” during what is supposed to be the movie’s most powerful moment of mourning and regret.   Instead, it only serves to show how desperate the filmmakers to scream out for attention. It falls on mostly deaf ears.