Missing the Start of the Film

When, of the two reviews I read for the movie The House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide Souvenirs de la Maison  Close), one gave it 1 star (dull, voyeuristic and with no story) and the other 4 and a half stars (richly textured, claustrophobic examination of the end of an era), there was nothing for it, but to go and see the film for myself, and to form my own opinion.

But first I had to get to the cinema; my second visit to the tiny Electric Palace in Hastings Old Town. The walk along the front took a good deal longer than it might have, because every couple of minutes I had to turn around to wonder at the colour of the sky, and to try fruitlessly to capture the rich pink of it all.

Suffice to say, we were about 10 minutes late for the film, and, creeping in, trying not to let the street door bang, we were allowed through the curtain into the showing with whispered promises that we would pay at the end, so as not to disturb everyone any further, so they could all turn their attention back to the screen.

Consequently I can’t really tell you about the very beginning of the film; but by the time we arrived, the girls, courtesans in a high class Parisian brothel in the dying days of the 19th century, were in their underwear, combing each others hair and preparing for the evening’s work ahead.

My assessment of the movie, inevitably, falls somewhere between the two which had prompted the visit, although I tend more towards the textured and claustrophobic end of the spectrum.  Although at the outset, in the careful, lingering shots of the actresses bodies, and the evocation of a languorous decadence, to my eye, there was little titillating voyeurism.  It was, instead, an unsettling portrait of an entirely closed world, from which there was little chance of escape, as no matter how hard they worked, the women’s debts to the madam kept increasing, where they weren’t allowed to go outside unaccompanied, and where, no matter the superficial air of solicitousness of the clientèle, there was always an underlying risk of violence and disease.

It was too long, and there were extended periods when I hope for nothing more than it would finish, but that may have been part of the intention; I came away feeling as if I had been released from tense claustrophobia.  It’s true that not a great deal happens, but there is enough incident to keep the narrative moving, and it is beautifully shot and very well acted, and not a little disturbing.

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