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Sex, Tolerance and Camraderie in Bertrand Bonello’s “House of Pleasures”

Sex, Tolerance and Camraderie in Bertrand Bonello's "House of Pleasures"

A brothel in fin de siècle Paris sets the scene for Bertrand Bonello’s “House of Pleasures” (L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close), which opens Friday via IFC Midnight.

The Toronto 2011 title is a cinematic view of the era as reflected in the closed but legal confines of a “grand maison,” where elegant madams and their beautiful women served their vetted clients who are portrayed by the likes of filmmaker-actors Jacques Nolot (“Before I Forget”) and Xavier Beauvois (“Of Gods and Men”).  

“House of Pleasures”follows the lives of The Madam (Noemie Lvovsky) and her girls, including Madeline (Alice Barnole), who is horribly disfigured by a client and becomes known as “the woman who laughs;” Clotilde (Celine Sallette) the veteran who longs to be a “respectable woman;” and Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), the newcomer whose eyes are quickly opened to reality. While desire and disease mix haunt the enclosure, the film also depicts a tight camaraderie among the girls.

Indiewire spoke to Bonello in September following the film’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Do you find that there’s a fascination with this period, turn-of-the-century France?

I think it’s a combination of many things. One is the end of the 1890s and the beginning of the 20th century. I think people during that era had this idea that it would mark an end to disease and of course we know that that wasn’t true.

I think the end of something is quite fascinating and I’m generally moved by the end of things. The world was changing generally and it fascinates people. For example, when foreigners come to Paris, they’re all crazy for the Musée d’Orsay, for instance, because it reflects exactly this period.

How did this story come about?

It was a mix of two things. A lot of research. I went through diaries of women and others who lived in this period. Also, paintings were very important and literature. But there was also my imagination because I wanted a mix of real and fantasy.

What I found fascinating about this particular maison — and perhaps that was the case in most of these establishments — I was surprised by the amount of socializing that went on, not only between the women and their clients but also between fellow clients. It was like a nightly party and not just business. It certainly wasn’t about anonimity.

No, it was very open. Prostitution was allowed then inside of these particular houses. As you said, they were social places — like the English clubs, for instance. You could have a drink and then have sex. You meet friends there and then go upstairs.

These kinds of places in Paris were very chic and also famous for the salon, not just for the girls. There were about eight to 10 of these that existed in Paris. You had a lot of eccentric people there; it was an accepting atmosphere.

It’s interesting that that was accepted so openly. It was as if society was simply accepting that there needed to be an outlet for this kind of non-conformity. But it was also a dual existence for the women that lived there. The difference for the women’s lives upstairs contrasted with the frivolity of when they entered the parlor downstairs.

Definitely. I wanted to make a film of contrast showing what we know from these places. There is a beauty — the luxury. I always say there is a night film and a day film. In the night film, everything is [joyous] and the day film is back to reality — back to regular life. These houses, though, were a golden prison for some of these people, but still a prison.

It’s a very sexy film, though there isn’t a lot of sex shown.

Yes, I asked myself a lot, “What am I going to do in the rooms?” It’s true that in my other pictures, I’ve shown sex a lot, but I didn’t want to go back into that. But also, sex scenes in films that include brothels have so many expectations, I think it would end up being very boring, even for people expecting them. So, I said to myself to try and show the time spent in other rooms [depicting] fetishims, theater and something that says a lot about the relationships between men and women, but in other ways — ways that are more interesting than just fake sex.

Your film hints at the problem of debt most of these women faced with the house and its madam. Basically, they were unable to get out of that debut unless a man came along and paid it all off?

This is kind of true. They were in debt after two or three months. The only one [in this film] who wasn’t actually in debt was the young girl, but if she were there longer than a few months it would all be over.

So they get charged for anything there…

Anything, the soaps, the perfumes — it’s a way to keep them inside. Ninety-five percent of the women in these houses never found a man to pay their debts. It was the way to keep them inside the house.

Do you think that when society changed and it became more open outside these licensed houses, conditions for these women changed?

It changed slowly, probably after 1910. These brothels still existed, but it was something very different. They were more hidden, and at the same time prostitutes started going out into the streets and restaurants. These houses definitely closed in 1946.

Today [in Paris] there are only two things that are illegal: Pimps and you cannot solicit on the street. But if you’re inside your apartment, you can do what you wish.

You mentioned theater as a reference in your approach to this film. How did art from this period influence the aesthetic or any other aspect of this film?

A lot of things came from restrictions, actually. I was obsessed with manipulating time because I did not have space; that’s why you have the flashbacks and a change in aesthetic point of view. I was trying to show a rich amount of time because I did not have a lot of space. I knew the film would be tough in a way, so I wanted to give some beauty and a lot of attention to light. We became obsessed with how light was seen during this period, which we can see in [paintings] from this period.

We did research on the mix of electricity and candles because 1900 was when electric lights started appearing in Paris. So we decided that in the salon and the main rooms downstairs there would be electric lights and then upstairs there would still be candles. There were many little details used and the sum of the details give the aesthetic of the film. The whole film is made inside with no windows, so I wanted it to be theatrical with movement and beauty.

Not all of the women in the film were conventionally beautiful, at least by our standards today. Was that your intention with creating style and look?

I think in chic brothels, you had to offer many styles. Beauty, of course, is very personal, so you had women with black hair, blondes, Arabic, fat, thin… So I was looking for women with personality, not just cute. They had to have something strong in the face, because for me that is the image of real beauty — something personal and strong.

How have audiences in North America vs. France reacted to this film?

Some questions are similar, but I think there are more questions [here in Toronto] about how it worked historically. I can feel from North Americans a fascination with that period. As I said, when many come visit Paris, they like the Musée d’Orsay, I think, because it’s an image of France that they like.

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