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House of Tolerance - corset

This was going to be a post about boobs. Because there’s a lot of them in this movie, and they’re some of the most beautiful breasts I’ve seen in a movie. But then I started writing and thinking and this post took an entirely different turn.

This is one of the most visually beautiful movies I’ve seen for a long time. It’s not new (I rarely see things new. Part of the territory of having a family, I’m afraid.) It came out in 2011, the same year as the similarly-themed Australian movie Sleeping Beauty. It is set in a high-class brothel in Paris in 1899, as the Belle Epoque draws to a close and documents the last year or two before the brothel is forced to shut down.

It’s a strange beast of a movie. It has all the achingly beautiful sensuality of a Pre-Raphaelite painting and is similar in that, while there is plenty of lush nudity and implied sexual activity, there is very little explicit sex. I think the point of its consummate beauty is carried well – this was the currency of this world, along with the equally bankable commodity of purchasable sexual gratification.

house of pleasure

I say it’s a strange beast, because it shows numerous different facets of this intriguing world that give rise to emotional responses ranging from arousal, through to blank horror. At times it deliberately provokes two or more highly conflicted responses at the same time.

Throughout, it clearly invites you to luxuriate in an enchanting visual pageant that is centred on the voluptuous loveliness of this group of women.


And they are lovely.

But there’s no getting away from the fundamental truth that these women have been utterly objectified and commodified. This is probably most starkly illustrated in a more-than-slightly disturbing scene showing the encounter that ensues after one of the customers requests “Lea, as a doll.”

At the same time, L’Appollonide takes the time to give you enough of each woman to convince you that she is an interesting, three dimensional person, regardless of how well you get to know her. The trade takes its toll on the characters – some pay a horrific price. There is no shying away from the worst that prostitution has to offer women: violence, disease, depression, drug addiction, humiliation, abandonment. But there are positive moments throughout: joy, companionship and quiet contentment.

There is one scene at the end that particularly puzzled me. It’s when a savage revenge is enacted upon a violent, sadistic client. It should have been satisfying. But the nature of the revenge is so extreme, and the scene so dream-like, I took it more as a communal fantasy on the part of the victim and her friends, rather than an indication that the perpetrator did in fact get his come-uppance.

In a way that encapsulates my overall experience of the film: a sense of physical beauty and sensuality warring with the ugly undercurrent of exploitation and disempowerment. It left me with some beautiful imagery, and some memorable characters, but lots and lots of questions.