L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close
In L’Apollonide, a brothel in Paris at the turn of the 19th century, the very air breathes opulence and languid elegance. There is no hurry to the life of the prostitute: the girls get up when they want to, Lèa (Adèle Haenel) explains to newcomer Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), and amuse themselves until it is time to prepare for the night’s work. Fastidious cleansing rituals take place before the clientèle arrive and between encounters. They smoke opium, drink champagne, and play table games with the clients, in presentation frivolous and indolent. Their inactivity is as deceptive as the tame panther brought into the brothel: these women are smart, trapped, and sharply aware their situation could always be worse.
Amid the lush scenery, however, spectres of disease, debt, and disfigurement menace the women…
At first, director Bertrand Bonello seems to pander to the glamorization of sex work. The prostitutes appear in perpetual déshabillé, and every aspect of the house is lovely, rendered in exquisite detail. Pauline’s first commerce takes place in an ornate bathtub full of champagne; Clotilde (Celine Sallete) is painted by an artist who tells her to open her legs because “men don’t gaze into the sex of women often enough.” The warm support the women afford each other makes the house feel a comparative haven. Amid the lush scenery, however, spectres of disease, debt, and disfigurement menace the women, all of whom entered the house with the hope of one day gaining financial independence. Madeleine (Alice Barnole), whose face is slashed by one of her customers, is afterward nicknamed the Woman Who Laughs. The disjointed narrative of this incident frames the other stories, exacerbating the tension and cruelty of an act that renders her value to the house that of a sexual curio.
…if there was any doubt as to Bonello’s regard for sex workers, it’s showcased clearly in the final sequence.
As the film progresses, the atmosphere of luxury becomes suffocating. The plot, like the pace of life in the house, moves at its leisure. Resolution to story-threads is subtle, at times grimly plausible, while occasionally exhibiting a capricious and vengeful humor. The characters speak plainly about their profession, but if there was any doubt as to Bonello’s regard for sex workers, it’s showcased clearly in the final sequence. HOUSE OF PLEASURES is a visual feast, but every dish is seasoned with a slow poison.
Bertrand Bonello’s HOUSE OF PLEASURES (L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close) is screening in 35mm at the Grand Illusion Cinema, Seattle through March 15th. Please note that it screens in the UK under the more austere title, HOUSE OF TOLERANCE.