House of Tolerance Movie Review
Madame Marie-France (Lvovsky) is struggling to keep her brothel open in 1899 Paris. Even though her licensed high-class girls have loyal clients, trouble is brewing. As the new century dawns, Madeleine (Barnole) is viciously attacked by a regular customer (Lacotte), and there are also the usual worries of pregnancy and syphilis. Although at least there's a new girl, 16-year-old Pauline (Zabeth), to attract fresh customers. But rising rent and shifting morality is changing the business, and Marie-France may need to take drastic measures to survive.
This isn't much plot for a two-hour film, so most of the running time consists of colourful scenes of the women in various states of undress as they prepare for work, flirt with gentlemen in the lounge, face a variety of fantasies and fetishes, and then collapse afterwards into their communal beds. In other words, it's like a particularly lush and lurid reality TV show about prostitutes. It certainly has a modern sensibility about it, with rock songs on the soundtrack and a casual doc-style approach.
But there's not much more to it than bodices being ripped apart and near-naked women languishing on chaise longues. The plot would barely fill a 15-minute short, and while each character has at least one salient trait, they aren't distinct enough to emerge as individuals. They come and go seemingly at random, without establishing any real relationships. That said, the cast is excellent, with especially brave performances from Barnole and Trinca.
Meanwhile, Bonello drops in odd elements like the pet panther that purrs loudly in the parlour, threatening something grisly to come. Madeleine's freaky dreams and deranged pronouncements of love are deeply unsettling, especially when visualised on screen. And there's an unnerving orgy sequence that is likely to haunt most viewers. Well, at least there's that: most films are instantly forgettable, but this atmospheric trip to the gloomier side of Moulin Rouge will be forever etched in the mind.