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House of Tolerance | Review

Bonello’s decadent brothel showcases Tolerance and Pleasures within a hyper-dimensional timeline

The turn of the century is an occasion for a little perspective, just as the turnover of the calendar year or the completion of another decade offers a moment to recollect on where we’ve been, where we’re headed, and all that has changed between two points in time. At the fin de siècle – such as the one we obsessed and conspired over with anticipation and dread approximately eleven years ago, and where Bertrand Bonello has set his new film House of Tolerance (albeit a hundred years earlier at the dawn of the 1900s) – that perspective is augmented to a scale that encompasses more than mere headline current events and hot topic trends that came and went. It’s an opportunity to measure the movement and evolution of humanity and culture in thick gradations. Certainly a lot can happen in a year or a decade, but zoomed back to a broader spectrum, hiccups in man’s progress struggle for lasting registration and significance. Saying that, what Bonello’s film contemplates, more than anything, are those hiccups – the micro-blips that are camouflaged within the vast scope of History. Setting up this theme, a client observes early on in the film that the brothel at the film’s centre always looks the same whenever he visits, only for a prostitute to challenge his claim with her experience: “It changes slowly.”

Beginning in what feels like, and may very well be, a dream sequence, Bonello snaps viewers into and out of the present with a brooding pre-credits sequence that follows several or all of the principle cast members as they navigate the claustrophobic mansion. While viewers are still adjusting to Bonello’s pacing, and the setting’s time and place, uncanny recurrences and double takes destabilize our efforts, such as the utterance of the line “I could sleep for a thousand years” in a pair shots that may or may not be identical. Back in what seems to be reality, Madeleine (Alice Barnole) – who will become known as ‘The Woman Who Laughs’ after a violent visit from a client – tells of a dream in which she cries tears of semen, only for the colourful image to be visualized later on in a stunning scene that isn’t nearly as tasteless or gratuitous as it sounds. As change can only become apparent upon comparison, the film is meticulously and ever-so-subtley structured around a web of repetitions, reprises, and codas.

The cast is composed of roughly a dozen women – all more-or-less the same age with like physiques – who could be collectively thought of as ‘the lead actress’. Initially difficult to distinguish from one another (though as Céline Sallette and Hafsia Herzi continue their rise to superstardom, the mixups will, befittingly, dwindle in time), they each ultimately achieve autonomy through the emergence of character idiosyncrasies and, significantly, the afflictions they weather. Transmorphing just as languidly as was proposed at the outset, the commune of prostitutes remains virtually, and superficially, the same as when the film began; the quietly felt presence of the house’s addition, ‘La Petite’ (Iliana Zabeth), cast against the heartbreaking loss Julie (Jasmine Trinca), yields the kind of ‘same same but different’ balance that gives the film its tension.

A relative narrative arc can even be found in House of Tolerance‘s aesthetics, both visually and sonically. Modelled after the kind of Romantic paintings that are contemporary to the film’s setting, the lush ennui of Bonello’s mise-en-scene, jaw-droppingly gorgeous even when the ugliest sides of humanity are being photographed, creates a potent correlation with the evolution of cinematic media. Luscious 35mm photography, well past its twilight hours, seduces us just for the sake of breaking our hearts in the present-day coda, cutting to a harsh digital image that induces a mental whiplash – spelling out how perhaps not all changes have to evolve so slowly. Torn between 1900 and ‘now’, the film’s soundtrack meets us at the mid-point with a mix of 60’s soul (The Mighty Hannibal, Lee Moses), which penetrates its way into the diegetic space of both temporal contexts. It’s enough to make one believe that Bonello’s casting of living, 21st-century actresses in the lead roles was a deliberate decision.

The impact of such a work is all the more impressive when considering that all of the research and ambition poured into such an esoteric vision didn’t preclude an end product as fluid and dynamic as it ended up being. It’s one of this century’s true miracles. Slowly creeping up from what at first seems to only be empirical beauty, House of Tolerance unveils an emotional core in its finale that offers a level of cumulative catharsis that reaches inexplicable heights. Much like Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (which would make an almost too-tidy male/female double bill with Tolerance, right down to the resounding codas), it’s a celebration of the individual and the collective; nostalgia for the past and an acceptance of the shape-shifting present.

Reviewed on September 10th at the 2011 Toronto Int. Film Festival – Visions

122 Mins.

Rating 5 stars

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Blake Williams is an avant-garde filmmaker born in Houston, currently living and working in Toronto. He recently entered the PhD program at University of Toronto's Cinema Studies Institute, and has screened his video work at TIFF (2011 & '12), Tribeca (2013), Images Festival (2012), Jihlava (2012), and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Blake has contributed to's coverage for film festivals such as Cannes, TIFF, and Hot Docs. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Talk to Her), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Code Unknown), Hsiao-Hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon), Kar-wai (Happy Together), Kiarostami (Where is the Friend's Home?), Lynch (INLAND EMPIRE), Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Van Sant (Last Days), Von Trier (The Idiots)

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