Betrand Bonello’s latest film House of Tolerance (2011), which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is sumptuous cinema devoid of the typical clichés that plague costume dramas. Instead, it offers a bold and intelligent representation of the lives of turn-of-the-century prostitutes in a rapidly changing Paris. The film’s plot is beautifully executed. Drawing on academic sources provided by Laure Adler, the feel is authentic yet also distinctly modern. The film explores the lives of a group of prostitutes in a high-class brothel at the start of the 20th century. Bonello offers an intimate portrait of the suffering, turmoil, joys and difficulties this group of women faced.
Most of the action is contained within the four walls of the house – a paradoxical building – half incredibly lavish and devoted to pleasure, the other a barren living quarters stripped of all luxury. The lower half of the house is a shrine to the fantastical, a place of sexual desire that borders on the unreal, starkly contrasted with the brutal reality of the women’s daylight lives. This confinement of the house heightens the drama with only a brief scene, in which the characters enjoy a rare visit to the countryside, giving the audience room to relax. The excellent use of contrast, night and day, upstairs and downstairs, past and present, builds a vivid and entertaining image of rarely discussed subject matter. There is a wonderful painterly quality to House of Tolerance with obvious influences from the romantics.
Bonello’s eye for setting up a scene is masterful and made all the more sumptuous with lingering shots of facial expressions and details of the sets. The performances are excellent, drawing on a wide range of actors with different levels of experience. Key to the film is the successful portrayal of camaraderie among the girls that provides both moments of joy and sadness throughout the film. There is no central character to speak of in this film, however Jasmine Trinca’s performance as ‘The Laughing Woman’, is exceptional, capturing the ultimate tragedy of the situation. The soundtrack refuses tradition and instead employs slave songs, 1960s soul and blues including Lee Moses’ Bad Girl. This juxtaposition works surprisingly well, demonstrating the universality of the situation epitomised in the film’s closing on the Porte de la Chapelle, Paris’ modern red light district. House of Tolerance captures the spirit of a shifting Paris in an intimate portrayal of captivating characters – Bonello’s best film to date.