An erotic drama set in a posh brothel in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris, French writer-director Bertrand Bonello’s The House of Tolerance awkwardly straddles art-house and exploitation genres.
Focusing on the lives of a dozen young prostitutes during the final months in the existence of upmarket bordello L’Apollonide, Bonello seems torn between laying bare the exploitative reality of fin-de-siècle prostitution and indulging in soft-core fantasy.
He doesn’t forget the sordid and sometimes dangerous side to the women’s lives – one prostitute dies from syphilis, another has her mouth slashed by a perverse client. But his camera certainly loves gawping at gorgeous women lounging around in various states of undress.
For the most part, he’s more interested in the women’s relationships with each other than with their rich clients, though we do get to see them living out some of their patrons’ kinky desires – pretending to be a geisha or a mechanical doll, or bathing in champagne, for example.
Beautifully shot and superbly acted by the cast, the drama is atmospheric and dreamlike, and largely static, but every now and then Bonello will jolt the film out of its languorous mood with a burst of blatantly anachronistic music, including the Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’.
Released on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 28th May by Universal Pictures.
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