At Cannes, a Brothel Revisited

The soulful crooning of the Moody Blues together with the decadence of fin-de-siècle Paris may sound like a Sofia Coppola period piece. But no, this particular mash-up took place in a film shown this year at Cannes. L’Apollonide—Souvenirs de la Maison Close (House of Tolerance) is the modest yet gorgeous historical drama that defetishizes and humanizes its female subjects, the belle filles of Maison Close, a turn-of-the-century brothel.

The poignant portrait of an illicit community of women is depicted with heavy nudity but little sexuality. Along the way are graphic tales of the horrors of the whorehouse and others like it. The unconventional approach to featuring these ladies-of-the-night (and day) is precisely what makes them interesting. “In the film there are very few shots of men,” explains French director Bertrand Bonello of his vision. “I wanted to show the movie from the point of view of the girls, something you don’t really see in literature or paintings of the time. I found a lot of what’s known is what happened in these brothels between 8 pm to 4 am, so I wanted to show what happens from 11 am to 8 pm.“

A tremendous amount of research went into the film, which competed against (and lost to) Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. “I read a lot of history, articles, diaries, and did visual research. I saw paintings and looked at their postures. It was important to me to capture that in the film,” said Bonello, whose actresses have a girlish Lolita quality, an inexperience showing through their pinned curls and rouged lips.

The result is a visually lavish story that follows twelve girls of the enigmatic Maison Close. “While shooting I really had to pay attention to all of them,” describes Bonello. “That was probably the hardest part, to make sure no one was overlooked, that each girl had her own story. Costumes were an important part of that. We put most of our money toward the corsets. Every girl had their own. They were the most beautiful creations. We tried to adapt each corset to each girl’s personality.”

As far the jarring choice of music, Bonello says, “Half of the music I wrote myself and the other half is soul music from the ’60s. Something I noticed was this relationship between the kind of slavery you hear in that era of soul music to the lives of these girls. I thought it related well.”

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