French director Bertrand Bonello returns with his fifth film, House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide), a languid yet compelling story of a Parisian brothel at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Featuring an ensemble cast of female talent, including Hafsia Herzi and Jasmine Trinca, the story rigorously shows daily life in the house - the camaraderie, the anguish and the horrors of serving men in this age-old profession.
Below, Bonello reports how the film came to him in a series of dreams, how scared he was working with a dozen women and gives an insight into his next film, a biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
- What interested you about this era?
I started to work on this because I really wanted to do a film with a bunch of young girls. And I didn’t want to do a film that would tell love stories today. So I tried to find a strong image of young girls, and then I came to this image of the girls in brothels in the beginning of the twentieth century.
I had read some books and I was very impressed by their strength. So after that I started to do some research, and the second thing that really excited me was not prostitution but the location. The idea of setting up a film in a brothel for me was a fantastic location for a movie, a fantastic place for cinema.
- It feels very claustrophobic and oppressive inside. Was that the kind of atmosphere you were looking for?
Yes. For me the fact there is no possibility to go outside, and no windows opened, you’re cut from reality. The outside does not exist. So for me, it was the possibility to make a film that would become more and more mental to the brain!
To me, the brothel is like a movie theatre. When you come into a movie theatre, there are no windows, you don’t hear the sound outside and you’re ready for fantasy.
- Was there some great books or old photographs that helped you in your research?
It was mainly books - journalist’s books. The photographs or the paintings are always made by men. So you have a very precise idea of the prostitutes when they are in a representation, in a way when they are acting.
You have an idea of their lives between 8pm and 2am, but not between 2am and 8pm. So I found a few very interesting journalists’ books, and then I found some diaries, and then I found some letters, and then I found the police archives.
- All of the details about the regime and the rituals they go through, is this pretty accurate?
I think so, yeah. I think it’s as precise as it can be.
- How did you find working with all these women on set?
I was a little scared before. It’s twelve girls so you never know! But the casting was nine months, a very long casting, and I was very obsessed with finding good actress I like, but most of all finding the group.
So I think I did, and they really got on together very, very well. I felt more like a football manager - though that’s eleven and not twelve!
- Are many of the actresses well known in France?
Only one, Hafsia Herzi, who won the César for the Kechiche film Couscous. And there is another one [Jasmine Trinca] who is Italian and very famous in Italy.
- But there wasn’t any pressure to cast a well-known face in the film?
Not too much, not too much. I accepted to meet some famous actresses, but the distributors agreed that they were not so good for the part. If you have someone too famous, it’s difficult to make a group, because you see just her.
- That’s the good thing about working in France, though, as you probably have less pressure to cast big than in the US or the UK.
Well, it depends on the budget. It’s a 3 million Euros film, which is not that much. If I wanted to do a film for 5 million, I guess I should’ve picked more famous actresses.
- You use split-screen and contemporary music at times. What was behind your stylistic choices?
There were many things. First of all, I decided not to feel free about everything I wanted to put in the film. One fear when you make a film in one location is that it’s going to be theatrical. So I wanted to give myself the possibility to use all the tools of cinema.
Split screen is one of them, and so are the flash-forwards. And for me, the split-screen was - I saw the film very much as a film of prison, and the split screen was like security cameras.
This idea that you’re never alone; even in the bathroom there is someone watching you. And the music it’s soul music from the Sixties. I don’t know why but for me the soul music represents very well the idea I had of this bunch of women in a brothel.
Maybe because there is a relationship with slavery, maybe because it’s soul, but really the sound of the girls for me was this music. I don’t have a theory about why, it was just a sensation. But when I decided that, when I was writing, it was obvious but I can’t tell why.
- You also show a contemporary shot of Paris at the end. Why?
Well, it’s a fake documentary - but it’s meant to show foreign students. It’s true that now, most prostitutes are from abroad. First of all, there is one character who is the same, and it shows that it was her destiny to be a prostitute for life.
Even a hundred years after, she’s still a prostitute. It’s something about destiny. I like the idea that we showed it this way, because only cinema can do that. The other thing is, for me, I saw the film as a matrix. And how do you get out of a matrix at the end, and back to reality?
- You do let them out of 'prison' once, by the riverbank. What was behind that idea?
First of all, I found that in the books - that once every two months, the mistress would take them to the countryside just to have some fresh air because it’s good for the lungs.
And this sequence happens half way through the film. If you go out and go back, I thought the idea of prison would be even stronger.
- The most powerful image is the facial scar that Madeleine endures. Is it true that this was based on the Victor Hugo novel, L’Homme Qui Rit?
In fact, the film that was made of the novel. It’s a film that was made in the twenties - The Man Who Laughs. It’s a silent film by Paul Leni. I saw that when I was a kid, and the images really stayed very strongly inside of me.
When I started to write, three nights in a row I dreamed of this film. I don’t know why. So when I woke up on the fourth morning, I said ‘OK, I’m going to try to put it inside the film to see how it goes.’
And then as soon as I started to write the first sequence I had a skeleton for my film with this character.
- Do you usually dream about your films when writing them?
No, usually, I try not to work with dreams, because it’s very dangerous! Everybody is not David Lynch! But I tried it this time.
- Do you think because you were reading about the subject a lot, that’s why you were dreaming about it?
Ha! Yeah, maybe. And this film of Paul Leni, it’s one my very few strong images from childhood, in terms of film. I saw it again when I was writing, to see if there were some details I could pick up. It’s a heartbreaking film.
- So why give Madeline this scar? The girls seem to embrace her after this happens
Yes, there is solidarity with the girls, which I really enjoyed. When I first started to write, I wrote some sequences with the girls showing jealousy and anger. And I thought this was really fake. And in all the books I read, I found that the life was so tough for them, they were really sticking together.
I liked the idea of these girls sticking together. Also, I think I’m really obsessed with characters that lose their face, in a way. I think it’s very moving.
- Have you had any problems with censorship with the film?
Not problems. A little bit in Asia. I don’t remember exactly which countries -I think Taiwan and Singapore. But the film also sold well abroad. I didn’t have many problems. I’ve had my problems with my other films, Tiresa and The Pornographer.
- Obviously, you’re showing it exactly as it was, so the nudity is not gratuitous
Exactly. And at the same time, if you think about the film, there are no real sex scenes. So there’s no real point of using censorship.
- And the men often seem to be clothed, with the women naked around them
Yes, that’s what I read. Even women, you see the breasts but they are not totally naked. They have so many clothes on them that if you get totally undressed, and dressed again, it takes a long time.
- The women talk very frankly about sex. Why?
I wanted to show that sex is an everyday job. There is nothing sacred about that. It’s just normal. Like if a baker was talking about his bread!
- In England, at least, sex was never talked about then
In France also. At that time, even married couples, they didn’t see each other naked. They dressed under the sheets. Even in France, people were very shy. I think that’s why brothels existed.
- Did the women have economic freedom? Or were they enslaved?
Well, you get trapped very, very quickly. This system of debts really existed. You arrive and you have to buy two or three dressed and perfumes, and stuff like that, and then you get trapped into something you can never refund.
- Did doing the film change your views on prostitution?
Well, it’s difficult to have one truth. It’s a very complicated subject. My opinion is that prostitution always existed and will always exist. So I think it’s worth trying to give these women the best working conditions, in terms of social help and health.
It’s too difficult to close your eyes and say ‘I want to forbid prostitution.’ Closing your eyes is not a good solution!
- Are you working on a new film now?
Yes, I’m working on a biopic about the life of Yves Saint Laurent. It’s François Pinault who has got the rights to his life. We are half way through writing the script. And we are starting to do the casting, but I don’t think it will be someone famous.
- Have you watched many fashion films?
Yes, I’ve seen a few but I’d like the film to be quite different. More in a Visconti style.
- What fascinates you about Laurent?
I think he’s unique. I think he’s maybe the only one I can say who is not only a fashion designer, he’s a real artist. And he died of that.
House of Tolerance is released on DVD on 28th May courtesy of Universal Pictures UK (LTD)