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Cannes 2011. Bertrand Bonello's "House of Tolerance"

Updated through 5/18.

"[E]veryone I know absolutely despised Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance, set in a Parisian brothel ca. 1899-1900, whereas I found myself rather touched by the film's oddly idealized portrait of a defunct community," writes Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club. "Granted, there are risible moments — you can't make a movie in which a hideously disfigured prostitute cries tears of milky semen without inspiring a lot of wisecracks on Twitter. But Bonello's compassion for these women feels genuine, and I appreciated the deft way that he juxtaposed their various assignations with the practical, menial details of their trade, as well as his pointedly anachronistic use of music…. I make no great claims for House of Tolerance, but the degree of intolerance among my colleagues has me befuddled."

Leslie Felperin in Variety: "Although there's heaps of nudity, disturbing violence, weirdness and a general air of bored erotic lassitude, all hallmarks of Bonello's work (The Pornographer, Tiresia, On War), pic also presents an accessible, credible portrait of what life was like for sex workers way back when, with all the career's pleasures (few) and perils (many)."

"Corsets, sumptuous naked bodies, a stunning salon where, in the words of Baudelaire, 'order and beauty, luxury, calm and sensual pleasure' reign." Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa: "Among black velvet bedroom walls the women's bodies are illuminated as they go about their 'commerce,' and the artistry of Bonello and his DoP Josée Deshaies is unleashed in a veritable dazzle of contrasted colors. But this marvelous 'painting' would only be a feast for the eyes if it did not value the remarkable actresses whose performances are testament to the meticulous care with which the director highlights them."

"The madam (Noémie Lvovsky) runs her house with a strict air of elegance and an even stricter set of rules," writes Stephanie Zacharek for Movieline. "Bonello details the women's daily routines, including their assignations with their regular and their random clients, with respectful curiosity. There's Julie (Jasmine Trinca), who gratefully accepts the attentions, and the money, of an older, regular patron (played by the wonderful French actor Jacques Nolot); Samira (Hafsia Herzi), the Arab woman who may be a novelty attraction for the clients, but who's considered just one of the girls in this fairly democratic sort-of sorority house; and Madeleine (Alice Barnole), an earthy, intelligent beauty who, early in the film, is maimed by a client she knows and trusts." And she was "with" Bonello "for about seven-eighths of the way through… But late in the film, Bonello takes a serious misstep, breaking faith with the audience by including a moment of graphic horror and violence that's wholly unnecessary."

Barbara Scharres, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, finds that "despite the obvious amount of research that has gone into creating the entire milieu with historical accuracy, he injects contemporary music ranging from blues to rock at various points. I know he has stated a complex rationale having to do with slavery in the press kit, but the ploy doesn't work on the screen. Secondly, Bonello's point about enslavement, underlined by the additional bad things that occur — one woman becomes addicted to opium; another dies of syphilis — seems to me to be undercut by the evident nostalgia he also demonstrates for this brothel system."

For Glenn Heath Jr, writing at the House Next Door, the film "plays like a Howard Hawks remake of Eyes Wide Shut…. But Bonello fails to connect the dots with a cohesive cinematic statement about much of anything, and even if that's the point (I don't think it is), House of Tolerance teeters on the edge of insanity until there's nowhere to go but into the void."

Geoff Andrew, writing for Time Out London, argues that "it would be foolish to decry the film's carefully contrived look — the women in their petticoats and corsets and the men in their formal attire all lolling around picturesquely in tableaux of golds, greens, crimsons and purples — or its acknowledgement that the working girls, for all their courage, sisterly camaraderie and canny intelligence, are being exploited. But once one gets beyond the curiosity value of certain historical and sociological aspects to what passes for a plotline, one is left with a mostly turgid, tedious and frequently pretentious series of scenes of scant dramatic interest or progress."

"Except for a few downplayed dramatic scenes — one of the women (Lvovsky) has her face sliced by a client, another (Trinca) succumbs to syphilis, the youngest girl ([Iliana] Zabeth) escapes — almost no dramatic tension passes through the edifice," writes Howard Feinstein for Screen. "Lethargy looms over this particular House of Tolerance."


"The fact is, the world's oldest professsion is also the world's oldest film subject and, from Pretty Baby to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, to mention but two titles that readily spring to mind, brothels have been cinematically explored high and low." Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter: "What makes this film stand out is its lyrical cinematography and costume design (courtesy of Anaïs Romand) that create a lush claustrophobia highlighting the golden cage these high-class prostitutes of yore lived in. Alain Guffroy's turn of the century sets immerse this closed world in its own unique atmosphere of heavy perfumes and bored captivity, eerily visualized as a domesticated black panther on a leash that one of the aristocratic gentlemen likes to bring with him."

"Despite derailing more than once, House of Tolerance sustains its mood of lust and languor," finds Melissa Anderson, dispatching to Artforum.

"Creakily pretentious, with amateur execution and a completely wrongheaded approach L'Apollonide is a sensationalist bore." An F from the Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth.

On average, grades are nudging up against 6 out of 10 at Micropsia.

Updates: "Just as in his previous movies," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "there is a preoccupation with sex, violence and cruelty-porn, and a distinct, beady-eyed enthusiasm for seeing women brutalized. Yet again in this movie, Bonello somehow manages to be both ridiculous and objectionable."

Guy Lodge at In Contention: "There's an elegiac dignity to the film's treatment of the oldest trade, bolstered by its saturated jewellery-box visuals, and Bonello is a bravura, if not terribly discriminating, stylist: his decision to have The Moody Blues' 1970s soft-rock anthem 'Nights in White Satin' diegetically soundtracking a key sequence is the kind of brazen flourish without which this silly provocation would be a lot less interesting."

Update, 5/18: "Madeline (Alice Barnole) — a beauty referred to with the film's signature tact as 'The Jewess' — is grotesquely scarred by a client in a sex game," notes Karina Longworth in Voice Film, adding that her "on-the-job injury, which comes as punishment for confessing a dream merging a boilerplate whore's romantic rescue fantasy with body viscera straight out of Bataille, gives L'Apollonide a defining element of decadent surrealism — which, in the sex set-pieces, dilutes into an absurdism that's oddly moralizing…. Visually ravishing, troublingly seductive, alternately risible and irresistible, L'Apollonide may be the ultimate guilty pleasure."

Cannes 2011. Index: Reviews, interviews, coverage of the coverage. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

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