House of Tolerance has been released in some countries as House of Pleasures, but in its native France it goes by the title L'Apollonide. That is the name of the Parisian fin-de-siècle brothel that director Bertrand Bonello invites us to spend two hours inside, with all but two brief scenes taking place within the building's luxuriously decorated walls. By spending so much time in this one location the film induces a sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped, of time standing still, and in that way it allows us to share the feelings of the woman who earn a living there. They are all trapped inside L'Apollonide, paying off the debts that bound them to the brothel's owner (Noémie Lvovsky), while clinging on to the hope that one of their wealthy clients will eventually propose and spirit them away from this place to start a new life. For most of them, this dream is a futile one.
Life at L'Apollonide is a strange mixture of decadent fantasy and mundane reality, and Bonello enjoys exploring both aspects of his girls' day-to-day life with the same curious eye. By day, the girls sleep, wash, submit to uncomfortable STD examinations and long periods of boredom, all of which is depicted in a straightforward manner that has an air of well-researched realism about it. When a 16 year-old Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) joins the workforce, we are taken on a tour behind the scenes of the house, as she learns the correct method of preparation and presentation that each prostitute must master before facing their customers. Women hang around in the background of shots, nude or near-nude, and we soon become comfortable in this company, enjoying the sense of camaraderie that exists between them. The characterisations are thin, but a few individuals stand out: Céline Sallette as an ageing prostitute whose options are growing increasingly thin, Hafsia Herzi as an Algerian fetishised for her ethnicity, and Alice Barnole as a woman brutally attacked at the start of the film. Her mouth is slit in a manner that recalls Heath Ledger's Joker or the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, but towards the end of the film even this disfigurement is a selling point, as men become intrigued by the girl hiding her mutilated features behind a mask.
Surprisingly for a film directed by Bertrand Bonello and set in a brothel, there is very little actual sex in House of Tolerance. The director is far more concerned with the business of sex and the games that people play than he is with the act itself. One client asks his chosen girl to perform for him as a life-size doll, another shares a gilded bath filled with 24 bottles of champagne, and one of the workers has to dress as a geisha and speak to her man in Japanese (gobbledegook she concocts on the spot). Bonello indulges these fantasy interludes, sometimes surveying the action in multiple rooms through a split-screen effect, but they are contrasted with the darker consequences of these women's chosen profession. We see a prostitute slip into opium addiction as she tries to escape her bleak future while another succumbs to syphilis, and of course there's the horrendous face-slashing that opens the film, even if Bonello dilutes the impact of this attack by returning to it repeatedly throughout the picture.
It's an intoxicating film – so much so that it's over before you begin to question what exactly Bonello is trying to say with it. As the boundaries between fantasy and reality shift in the film's climactic stages, House of Tolerance appears to be a lament for the passing of an era, with the brothel – crippled by debt – about to close its doors for the last time. Is Bonello painting a nostalgic, romantic portrait of what the sex industry used to be? That certainly appears to be the case with the epilogue, which suddenly and jarringly lands us in a contemporary milieu, a move that I think is a mistake on the filmmaker's part.
The only other scene that takes place outside the brothel's walls occurs when the girls are allowed to have a day off by their madam, to swim in the lake and enjoy the fresh summer air. It could be argued that this reprieve from the stifling atmosphere of L'Apollonide only makes their prison-like surroundings even more imposing when they return to work, but I felt that allowing us to see the world outside the brothel somehow broke the spell that Bonello had so skilfully cast in the opening hour. One character describes the odour of the brothel as "the smell of sperm and champagne," and Bonello's evocation of this atmosphere is so rich and vivid, we can almost smell it for ourselves. House of Tolerance is overlong and a little vague about its purpose, but it has a powerfully transfixing effect, and its finale leaves your head swirling with remarkable images: a slow dance to Nights in White Satin, a panther skulking around behind the furniture, a woman weeping in a way we've never seen before.