Although I had a GREAT time in Toronto last week, I was disappointed by the majority of what I saw (this being one of the exceptions). So when I say Bertrand Bonello’s ‘House Of Tolerance’ is on my list of Top 5 films that I saw at the festival (and it certainly is) that’s not really saying a whole lot, so I’ll do my best to express how much I loved this movie and why it was better than so many others. ‘House Of Tolerence’ is about the downfall of an upscale French brothel and the inevitable rise of the kind of prostitution we all know today (hookers, street walkers, pimps, etc). This rise and fall coincides with the dawn of a new century (the movie starts in 1899 and ends in 1900). Even though the film focuses on one specific brothel and the closely knit group of women/prostitutes who live and work there, it essentially represents all brothels during that time period that were on their way out. The film is highly stylized (the elaborate & authentic-looking costume designs), sometimes surreal (there’s a dream sequence where one of the women cries tears of semen) and its also realistic (there’s plenty of not-so glamorous scenes like the women getting tested for STD’s). Bertrand Bonello is no stranger to exploring sex and/or sexuality (‘The Pornographer’ being about the obvious & ‘Tiresia’ being about a transgender person), so ‘House Of Tolerance’ fits right in with the rest of his filmography.
I know the topic of prostitution has been done a million times before (something a few different critics have noted in their ridiculous reviews of this movie) but as many of us know, most films that deal with this subject create this false image of what life is like for prostitutes (pretty woman, best little whorehouse in texas and even Bresson’s the ladies of the bois de boulogne for example). I think Lodge Kerrigan’s ‘Claire Dolan’ may have been one of the last great films on this subject until now.
‘House Of Tolerance’ shows a dark, twisted and sometimes freaky side of men that most people wouldn’t expect from a film based around sex set in the 19th century. The film shows everything from men who get off on slashing women’s faces, to playing dress-up (there’s a scene in the movie where one of the clients wants one of the prostitutes to dress up like a giant doll).
What also sets ‘House Of Tolerance’ apart from other films about prostitution (along with half of the lineup at TIFF this year) is that it has style. Sorry to sound so vague and pretentious but that’s one of the things I loved about it. Style and a cast of BEAUTIFUL French actresses.
For a movie that’s almost 2 hours and 20 minutes long, I never looked at my watch once or got bored. Had any other movie shown so many scenes of women sitting around, hanging out and just looking pretty I would have eventually grown bored. But it didn’t seem to bother me in ‘House Of Tolerance’.
I’m also a sucker for a dark, modern ambient score, which is another thing this movie had going for it.
This is bound to spark some heated debates. It’s one of those films that could either enrage or please a female viewer depending on how they look at it. There’s also elements of the “New French Extremity” in ‘House Of Tolerance’ (a genre of somewhat violent & “provocative” french films from the late 90’s & early ’00’s like ‘Irreversible’, ‘I Stand Alone’, ‘Humanity’, ‘Basai Moi’ and a few more). The face slashing scene of “The Jewess” (which we actually see twice), made a few people get up and leave.
While watching this I was reminded very much of another recent french film: ‘Black Venus’ (as well as the FEW good moments in Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’). Both ‘Black Venus’ and ‘House Of Tolerance’ are sad, 2+ hour-long, unapologetic looks at the sex trade and the spread of STD’s in 19th century Europe. They both have a great eye for detail and really make you feel as if you’re in the 1800’s. I hope ‘House Of Tolerance’ doesn’t fall victim to the same problems that ‘Black Venus’ did like misunderstanding movie critics who didn’t really give it a chance. Hopefully ‘House Of Tolerance’ will play at a nice theater here in the city with a good screen so the audience can get the full effect (the “look” of the movie is very rich and colorful).