i finally got the chance to watch l’apollonide (house of tolerance/pleasure en anglais) last night, and it was so good i had to stop it mid-watch just to breathe and make it last a little bit longer.
the atmosphere of this film has the scent of piece of too-ripe fruit, not unlike the house and occupants that make up the story. the colours and score are heavy and rich and bruise-hued, all velvet brocade, sheer muslin and champagne. told as anecdotal memories of a belle epoque brothel and it’s employees (or rather, endentured servants) entering the twilight of their era, as high rent and changing mores push even high-end prostitution to the margins of society.
the performances of each of the actors in the film are incredible, with zero exceptions. the tortured anguish of madeleine, the resigned exhaustion of clotilde, youthful petulance of lea & pauline, and even the sad stateliness of madame marie-france; every woman is given time and space to show the highs and lows of their characters. and director bertrand bonello uses the brilliant technique of focusing close ups almost exclusively on the women of this film to enable this; in l’apollonide, men are mere plot points and cardboard caricatures, but we can enter the women’s minds and souls.
this film manages to do what many others ostensibly about sex work can’t. the women of l’apollonide aren’t hookers with hearts of gold, trafficked victims desperate for escape, and they aren’t sad beautiful birds living in a gilded cage. they are intelligent, independent women with beauty and ugliness and joys and fears, slogging away in an industry that will never give them the due they are truly owed- and they are well aware of this. they work at l’apollonide because they need a job and it pays better than the others offered to women of their time. for once, a film that doesn’t try to offer judgement on prosititution, just shows the realities for the women that work it.