Bertrand Bonello’s film, L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close, has been showing at my local art house movie theatre under the title, House of Pleasures. (It has also been released under the title, House of Tolerance). It depicts the lives of women living and working in a brothel in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their lives are hard. One woman, Madeleine (Alice Barnole), has her face slashed by a client and is permanently disfigured. Another, Julie (Jasmine Trinca) contracts syphilis and eventually dies. Clotilde (Céline Sallette) becomes an opium addict. The fate of the other women is uncertain, since the madame (Noemie Lvovsky) cannot afford to pay the increased rent demanded by the landlord.
Despite its grimness, this film is not strictly realistic, for there are fantasy sequences. In some scenes, for example, there is late twentieth century pop music, such as the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin, playing on the soundtrack. In one scene, we see semen coming out of Madeleine’s eyes. This struck me as completely gratuitous.
House of Pleasures is two hours long, but it seems much longer than that. What’s really frustrating about this movie, though, is that one senses that buried somewhere in this sprawling, confused, and sometimes repulsive mess is what could have been a good film. When they’re not dancing to anachronistic pop music, the characters sometimes come across as complex and interesting. House of Pleasures does show a sense of class consciousness in that the women all come from factory worker or peasant backgrounds, whereas their clients all come from wealthy families. Unfortunately, Bonello’s self-conscious artiness and heavy-handed efforts to shock the audience ultimately rid this work of any emotional power. It simply leaves you feeling numb.