Brothel films are like submarine movies—the stories, the dramas, even the details always remain the same, held in a airtight container as if observing variations of the same scientific experiment. The challenge for the filmmaker is not invention, but sensibility in provoking these variations. Many characterizations of Bertrand Bonello’s L'apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close), set in the eponymous brothel at the “twilight” of the 19th century and “dawn” of the 20th, could be applied across an entire genre, the chambered mise-en-scène, the opiated, muffled tone; even dramas amongst the girls too: debts, love, violence, fetishism, a new girl, disease. Yet there is something else here, mysterious, practically intangible within the confines both of the brothel and the genre, something that leaves the film a lingering quality like smoke left hanging in a vacated room, traces, ghosts, remnants.
It’s in the mise-en-scène, calling up Hawks in coverage and Hou in feel and pace; it’s in the camera’s allegiance to the girl’s faces, sad, distant, actorly, abstracted even in laughter. It’s in the strange stylized gestures of the film, the declamatory title cards marking the turn of the century, periodic temporal jitters, moving forward and backward in time unmotivated, the intrusion of 1960s pop—calling to mind another end of an epoch film, Garrel’s Regular Lovers—and in a startling concluding jump to low-grade digital video.
Above all, L’apollonide is a sympathetic film, not just to suffering, oppression, bitterness, exploitation—again, common appearances within film conventions of brothels—but, more precisely, caring for this space of girlhood, sexuality, friendship, femininity and love confined and artificial, every relationship, setting and shot defined by its association within this lavish, decadent house of prostitution. It is in this patient, caring sympathy, laid out in Bonello’s relaxed pacing and direction of supreme attentiveness to the actresses, that L’apollonide achieves its melancholy strangeness and curiosity, moving it, as if in a trance, beyond the basic needs of genre, and leaving something dark behind in its wake.
Two Sundance films on the Croissette shined with far greater natural nuance and detail in their human relationships than the other films here. Liza Johnson’s Return, in Directors’ Fortnight, is secured by a performance of perfect wayward confusion from Linda Cardellini, who plays an Iraqi veteran who returns home, and achieves a human realism especially in her relationship with husband Michael Shannon. Their interactions carry such a ring of human beings communicating inside the intimacy and frustrations of of a real, social relationship that their scenes together sting even when happy—such as a fantastic sequence of Linda coming onto Shannon as the couple tries to fix a bathroom pipe, full of spontaneous reactions, physical confrontation, and clashes of character.
Jeff Nichol’s Take Shelter, also starring Michael Shannon in a troubled relationship—this time he’s the focus and married to The Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain—takes a step back from the smaller interactions and details of Johnson’s film, but its scenario gives space for a far different dramatic direction. Shannon’s husband becomes increasingly worried that constant nightmares are the onset of psychological illness, and in consequence he starts withdrawing from his world around him. Nichols evokes the awkward, empty silences and looks that can pass between close friends and relations as they notice something amiss and express dismay over lack of communication as Shannon avoids and excuses. Chastain in particular in a scene towards the end where she expresses a directive, positive firmness sends tremors through the film after so much hesitation and postponement.