House of Tolerance


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



11 February



Cynthia Payne acquitted of running a brothel, 1987

On this day in 1987, 54-year-old Londoner Cynthia Payne was acquitted of being a madam and living off the immoral earnings of others. She’d been arrested before, in 1978, when her suburban sex parties for pensioners had attracted the attention of the newspapers, not least because she accepted Luncheon Vouchers as payment for activities including being spanked by young ladies. On the first occasion she’d been sentenced to 18 months in prison, reduced to six months on appeal, of which she served four. Payne’s notoriety stemmed in large part from her unwillingness to be coy about what she was up to. She claimed she had every right to hold a party in her house, that what people got up to behind closed doors was their own affair, and that she had in any case been too busy making tea and sandwiches to indulge in the sex sessions herself.

This second bust had happened at a party to celebrate completion of a film about her young life (Wish You Were Here, starring Emily Lloyd). Indignant that ordinary people should be prosecuted for harmless private activity, Payne went on to stand as a member of Parliament as a candidate of her own Payne and Pleasure Party. Though standing in the one of the most secure Conservative seats in the country, Kensington, where she lined up alongside candidates such as John Crowley (Anti Yuppie Revolutionary Crowleyist, Vegetarian Visionary), Brian Goodier (Anti Left Wing Fascist) and Screaming Lord Sutch (Official Monster Raving Loony Party). She was not elected.




House of Tolerance (2011, dir: Bertrand Bonello)

Known originally as L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close, and in some countries as House of Pleasures, here’s a film set in a bordello at the time of the Belle Époque. And, this being France, the girls are fine of body and of mind. They dress well and inhabit a beautiful house full of lovely things. Their clients are gentlemen who say things such as “I want to tie you up. May I?” This is prostitution as career choice not as act of desperation. And, having set all this up – the dark wood and flock wallpaper, the paintings and clink of champagne glasses – having massaged our expectations in one direction, director Bertrand Bonello does something which the languid pace and stifled yawns of the girls have not prepared us for. He introduces a plot.

How much to give away here is the question: I will just say that one of the girls is treated in a way that we haven’t been expecting, appallingly in fact, and that this sets a timebomb ticking in a film that then more or less goes back to the tick tock of the grandfather clock, the exquisite tedium of living inside a gilded cage, of living apart from society.

House of Tolerance derives its power from this split – all is languid up above while down below in the psychological depths, we suspect that the Girl Who Laughs, as the appallingly treated woman is called, will get her payback. We just don’t know when. Bonello takes the maison close at its own estimation, making it look gorgeous, populating it with beautiful women who are frequently in a state of undress, showing their living arrangements as collegial, boring but amicable – they’re one big happy family in fact, or as much of a family as permanent indebtedness to the madam and the threat of syphilis and opium addiction will allow. And at the end of this strange mix of quasi-documentary and thriller Bonello throws in a brief epilogue set in our age of cars and concrete, which asks us to think again about what we’ve just seen and asks whether it was as bad as what’s replaced it.



Why Watch?


  • Frequent nudity has rarely been less prurient
  • Beautiful sets, beautiful clothes, beautiful women
  • Lush cinematography by Josée Deshaies
  • Anachronistic music – rock, blues – used to great effect


© Steve Morrissey 2014



House of Pleasures aka House of Tolerance – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “House of Tolerance”

  1. "House of Tolerance" opens with a scene that typifies the film. A gentlemanly client of L'Appollonide, the fictional Paris brothel of the 1890s where the film is set, declines sex with the exotic and likable Madeleine, but requests she instead describe one of her dreams. After she recounts a fantasy of sex with a masked man that ends with her weeping tears of semen, he politely asks permission to tie her to the bed. One she's helpless, he slashes both her cheeks with a knife,leaving her with a permanently disfiguring grin.

    In a real-life Paris bordello like Le Chabanais, the establishment that inspired L'Appollonide, Madeleine would have been turned out. Instead, the other prostitutes and its kindly madame, hearts of gold all, rally to protect her. She becomes the house's cook, minds the children, and even, as "The Woman who Laughs", continues to attract jaded aesthetes excited by deformity. In one of the film's more Sadeian scenes, she stars at an orgy involving aging aristocrats, a staff of female servants, all nude, and a sullen black-gowned dwarf.

    We see one of the obligatory fortnightly health checks required by the police, and the system of paying the women; clients buy tokens, which the women cash in at the end of the night. Such realism clashes with a Visconti-esque sumptuousness in costumes and decor. The house itself is palatial compared to Le Chabanais, or any real brothel, and the women more attractive than the habitués of even the most elegant establishment.

    The film often feels like an anthology, shuffling together episodes and individuals associated with the brothel culture, and not bothering too much about anachronisms. An idyllic country picnic and skinny-dip for the girls evokes the most humanizing of whorehouse stories, Maupassant's "Le Maison Tellier". A client, called only Gustave and content to spend his time in the brothel staring raptly at vaginas, suggests Gustave Courbet, who painted "The Origin of the World", a meticulous but faceless depiction of female pudenda. Courbet, however,died in 1877, well before the period of the film.

    Bonello is closer to his time period when he shows a girl being bathed in champagne. The then-Prince of Wales, Victoria's son and later Edward VII, liked to sit around such a bath at Le Chabanais and share the wine with friends. Wine, water and secretions mix promiscuously in the film. In an early scene, whores and clients share champagne from a gilded chamber pot of what should be Sevres porcelain but resembles anodized aluminum. Meanwhile, the girls play a table game using the squirt bulbs normally employed to flush their vaginas. Repeatedly we see women rinsing their mouths after oral sex and washing the sticky residue of wine from their bodies. One woman observes bitterly, "this place stinks of champagne and sperm."

    Bonello is at pains to insist on the moral and emotional superiority of the prostitutes over their sentimental, self-absorbed clients – something even the men concede. As one ruefully confesses, "men have secrets, but no mystery." Even Gustave, the most compassionate of the regulars, sees the women as objects. The complaisant Pauline dresses up for him, first in a Japanese kimono, then as a blank-eyed, jerkily moving doll. In a scene reminiscent of Donald Sutherland coupling with a clockwork woman in "Fellini Casanova", her impersonation of a machine excites Gustave in a way flesh and blood never did. As he penetrates her from behind, she stares expressionless at us, the audience, as if to ask, "How like you me now, my masters?"

    Returning repeatedly to the mutilation of Madeleine, adding more graphic detail each time, Bonello makes us complicit in her pain. Her endurance and acceptance, like that of all the prostitutes, is transcendental, and appears a kind of martyrdom – an offering to the Apollo for which the house is named. The girl dead of syphilis, the opium addict, and, finally, all the women dumped on the streets when the brothel closes down, have suffered and died for our sins. The last shot of the film drives home the point. Beside a modern highway, the same girls who staffed the L'Appollonide, now in mini-skirts and hot pants, continue to offer sex and salvation to an indifferent male world.

  2. I loved this film, I am surprised to see more than one review damning the film for a lack of plot. There is most definitely a plot it's subtle and thoughtful but the characters all have an arc and, for some, very definite resolutions.

    The cast are superb, even those with the smallest roles present fully rounded individuals of whom it's possible to infer their lives outside the bounded world presented to us. The relationships between the women of the house both amongst themselves and with their clients are rich and true.

    Although full of sex and sexuality nothing is gratuitous or titillating but real and honest. Sometimes good, sometimes dreadful, sometimes funny, sometimes a violation.

    This was a film that I would have been happy to watch for another two hours , I didn't want to leave these women behind.

  3. French screenwriter and director Bertrand Bonello's fifth feature film which he also wrote, scored and co-produced with Kristina Larsen is a French production. It tells the story of numerous prostitutes living and working at a Parisian brothel run by Madame Marie-France near the end of the 19th century. Most of the women who lives at the mansion get' along fine with their customers and one of them is evolving a relationship with a regular customer. Clotilde, known as the Jewess, shares her dreams with this man and one night after having been away for two weeks, he returns to the house of tolerance. Clotilde tells the man of a dream she has had about him and plays along to fulfill his desires, but during the session he cut's her with a knife. Following the horrific incident, Clotilde is left with a disfigured face, loses many of her customers and is given the name, the woman who laughs.

    Subtly and acutely directed by Bertrand Bonello, this visually distinct interior period drama which is seen and narrated from the point of view of the prostitutes, draws a detailed, involving and intimate portrayal of their ritualistic lives at a brothel, during the twilight and the dawn of the 20th century in Paris, France. With a stringent narrative structure and while depicting several minor studies of character, this finely paced, somewhat surreal and historic study of prostitution presents a closed world marked by socializing, boredom, decadence, sadness and fantasies, where the women shares their experiences with each other, and creates a reverent depiction of their strong and private unification. Notable for it's brilliant set decoration by Alain Guffroy, costume design by Anaïs Romand and the picturesque cinematography by Joseé Deshaies, this is a low-keyed, melancholic, symbolic, darkly romantic and dreamlike tale of a descending utopia.

    The efficient score by Bertrand Bonello emphasizes the mysterious and poignant atmosphere in this grotesque, tangible and fictional chamber piece, which is reinforced by the understated acting performances from a cast consisting of both professional and non-professional actors and actresses such as French actress Hafsia Herzi, French actress Céline Callette, Italian actress Jasmine Trinca, French actress Adèle Haenel, French actress Esther Garrel, French actress, screenwriter and director Noémie Lvovsky, French actor, screenwriter and director Xavier Beauvois and Alice Barnole and Iliana Zabeth in their debut feature film roles. A compassionate declaration of love to women and cinema, which was screened in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival in 2011 and which gained the Cèsar Award for Best Costume Design Anaïs Romand at the 37th César Awards in 2012.

  4. No matter the titillating title, writer/director Bertrand Bonello's 'House of Pleasures' doesn't hope to pleasure its audience by pandering to their baser instincts through a flesh parade of its predominantly female cast. Instead, Bonello mounts a sombre look at the daily lives and routines of the prostitutes within the walls of the Appolonide, an upmarket Paris brothel for middle-class men at the turn of the 19th century. The pace is slow and languid- consider this fair warning for less patient viewers- but if you allow it, the movie will reel you in with its hypnotic charm and leave you wondering about the people behind the world's oldest profession.

    Filmed with a deliberate dispassion throughout, Bonello flits from one character to another, never making one the central figure in the movie. Among those we get to recognise are Clotilde (Celine Sallette), a twelve-year veteran of the trade at just 28 years old who has recently grown increasingly disillusioned and dependent on opium; Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), the youngest at just 16 who enters the trade in a misguided attempt at asserting her own independence; and the middle-aged Madam (Noémie Lvovsky) who runs the house faced with foreclosure due to rising rent prices.

    Yes, Appolonide is far from a cocoon for the girls, and Bonello places two stark characters as a sobering reminder of that- the first in the form of a cheerful girl Julie (Jasmine Trinca) who discovers one day during a routine medical examination that she has syphilis; and the second in Madeleine (Alice Barnole), who is permanently disfigured when a client (Laurent Lacotte) she dreams of having a future with ties her to the bed and slashes her from both corners of the mouth. Madeleine is the most blatant Bonello gets at eliciting his audience's empathy for these women- and certainly, it's hard not to be moved when she is nicknamed 'The Woman Who Laughs' and becomes no more than an object of fascination for others to gawk at.

    Notwithstanding Madeleine's misfortune, there is little to cheer about for any of the other girls trapped with little hope of escaping their circumstance. Though visited by regulars with sweet words and buoyant promises, there is little illusion that none of these men are serious about their affections for the ladies they frequent, using them as mere vessels to act out their fantasies- one girl is made to act like a mechanical doll; while another is dressed in a kimono and asked to speak Japanese even though she knows not the language. We know better than to believe their lies and empty promises, but who can blame some of the ladies for being optimistic- what else after all do they have to live for?

    Setting most of the film within the four walls of the Appolonide and emphasising the day in and day our rituals of the women within adds to the claustrophobic feel of the movie, which of course reinforces the cheerless nature of their situation- there is also a reference to the conventional wisdom of the day, which equates their status to that of criminals by virtue of the size of their heads. The rare scene where the girls have the most fun is a daytime excursion they take to the countryside, which unsurprisingly shows them at their most lively and vivacious.

    And indeed, there is very little to cheer or find pleasure in- despite the movie's title- once one has observed the lives of these women in the Appolonide. The film is also purposefully set at the twilight of the industry in that form, and from time to time, Bonello hints at the imminent passing of a Parisian cultural icon. His parting shot is that of modern-day Paris, where prostitutes are standing by the street waiting for some random guy in a car to pick them up. Has society progressed in the past century? As long as there remain women who are stuck in the circumstance as those in the Appolonide, the answer quite honestly is a sobering no.

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