Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 22, 2011 2:26 am 
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The Belle Époque's languid wild side

L'Apollonide - Souvenirs de la maison close (in Cannes competition in 2011; House of Tolerance its English title), with an interesting cast that includes three other directors, and enriched by deeply colored, painterly images, is set in the perfumed prison of a posh French brothel in 1899, "the dawn of the twentieth century," as a title calls it. The clients are elegant, the premises are spacious, the girls are lovely, but some of the proceedings are ugly, syphilis kills, and rents and taxes are going up: this particular sex worker world is coming to an end. Bonello suffuses his atmospheric film with lush ambivalence, blending attraction and repulsion. The result that emerges is a rather peculiar mix of romantic, decadent, semi-surreal miserabilism. Apart from an outing in the country, all is indoors, dark, and floating in champagne and opium. Bonello's film is a delight to the eyes, but there's more than a little that is creepy here.

Clearly this is a dangerous job. One girl, Madeleine (Alice Barnole) lets a regular client (Laurent Lacotte) tie her up and slashes her mouth, leaving hideous scars that make her look like The Joker. The other girls call her "The Woman Who Laughs," after the Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs. She is kept on, and some clients like being with and talking to her, like one played by director Xavier Beauvois (who made Of Gods and Men). Though one young newcomer with voluptuous breasts, Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), an educated teenager who announces her arrival with a letter of introduction she sends ahead of her, somehow later escapes, this in general is a gilded prison, a Hotel California. And the girls are indentured: they must pay the former hooker madam Marie-France (the always relaxed, appealing director Noémie Lvovsky) for all their fine clothes, and even the very wealthy regular client of Julie (Jasmine Trinca), played by the director Jacques Nolot (utterly in his element in these louche surroundings) will not help out.

Apart from its beauty, and a cast that includes Hafsia Herzi (whose notable debut was in Aabdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain) , Céline Sallette, Jasmine Trinca, Adeèe Haenel, Alice Barnole, Iliana Zabeth; the aforementioned Jacques Nolot, Noémie Lvovsky and Xavier Beauvois; Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (star of Mia Hansen-Løve's The Father of My Children, Jacques Nolot, and Laurent Lacotte, this is one of the most detailed and specific depictions of a brothel on film. It does not spare us on the negative aspects. Besides the disfigured Madeleine, one woman dies covered with syphilitic lesions; another, clearly a burnout after 12 years in service, takes constant refuge in opium and moves around listlessly like a semi-zombie.

Bonello doesn't have a strong dramatic plot, and the resulting general lack of drive of his atmospheric film, its emphasis on the prostitutes' passivity and frequent downtime, leads inevitably to longeurs. His subject is the brothel itself, seen vaguely from the point of view of its impressario, Marie-France, who moves about brandishing a long cigarette holder, pouring champagne into tall glasses, and flashing her languid smile. There is an undercurrent of her attempts to save the house from rising costs that are going to bring it down. Perhaps out of a lurid fascination that the whole film reveals (despite its unsexiness), he lingers much too much on the strangely defaced Madeleine, whose red-scarred grin never seems quite real. There's something queasy, not quite right. This is also an overbearingly sad film, that lacks the balance of any jokey, joyful moments, which one would expect from a dozen mostly young women. Though half the dozen girls gain identities, none is seen in much depth, and it all goes on too long; 20-30 minutes might have been cut. But this is still worth seeing to luxuriate in the beautiful colors, the atmosphere, and the Belle Époque nudes. Admirable cinematography by Josée Deshaies and lavish costume design, full of unexpected colors, by Anais Romand; and the women are of course often unclothed. This is a film that stays in the visual memory. Perhaps only that, but sometimes that is enough.

Image l'Apollonide - Souvenirs de la maison close/House of Tolerance, 122 mins., debuted at Cannes in May 2011 and opened in Paris September 21, 2011 to favorable though mixed reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.6). A UK release January 27, 2012 is anticipated, and since this review was written in Paris a limited US release began in NYC and LA November 25, 2011. Metascore 75%.

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