Set on the brink of the 20th century, L’Apollonide (also known for its English title: ‘House of Tolerance’) is set in a Parisian brothel, where a group of women enjoy a seemingly luxurious lifestyle full of champagne, expensive clothing and earning money through sex. However, all is not well as Marie-France, the owner of the brothel played by Noémie Lvovsky, could lose the business which she has built up so carefully.
Treated like objects of desire by many of the men to come to visit, the ladies of L’Apollonide are anything but objects. They’re full of life. L’Apollonide does not act to document the harsh experiences of prostitutes in brothels in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, instead it serves to delve into the lives of a group of women who live in the brothels and the trials and tribulations that they experience.
To begin with, we’re introduced to Madeleine, originally nicknamed ‘La Juive’ (played by Alice Barnole) who is infatuated with her lover. She often dreamt of him proposing and paying her off her debt to Marie-France, so that she could live with him. However, she does state that she sometimes feel like he wants to hurt her. He ties her up and slashes her face with a knife – rendering her almost ‘useless’ in terms of prostitution and disfiguring her for life by giving her a sick grin, similar to that of The Joker from the Batman series. She becomes “La Femme Qui Rit” (The Woman Who Laughs). She becomes a servant, or maid, for the other girls initially but does in fact gain some independence by using her disfigurement as a sort of ‘freak show’.
We also meet Clotilde, or ‘Belle Cuisse’, (played by Céline Salette, who you may recognise from Les Revenants). Struggling with an opium addiction and feeling the strain of being one of the oldest in the house, she shows us the side of ‘losing your value’. She is pushed out by the young Pauline, who becomes “La Petite”, who attracts her lover. As well as feeling for the girls in terms of abuse and neglect, we also realise how dangerous it is for some of them to be in this line of work. “La Caca”, one of the girls catches syphilis and is therefore ‘dumped’ by her client – though he still pays for her lodging.
It is necessary to remember that Marie-France still looks after her girls, selling them off to other houses when her brothel goes under, to keep them off the streets. She cares for them and could be said to have a soft-hearted approach despite her cold exterior upon first meeting this character. She allows Madeleine to stay, despite her disfigurement, she takes on Pauline. She cares for each and every one of the girls.
The ‘sisterhood’ element of L’Apollonide is prominent – the girls show each other respect and stand up for one another, as well as laughing off their own experiences. We watch them dance together, hug, talk, laugh and not show any signs of ‘bitchiness’. There is no ‘competition’ element which is often refreshing in a film which depicts a group of many girls together. In fact, right at the very end, we see the girls grieve for the death of another and also ‘take revenge’ on the man who hurt, all wearing make up resembling the scars on Madeleine’s face.
The ending of L’Apollonide shows Clotilde in present day Paris, still working as a prostitute but on the streets. It shows her grainy, grey, washed out and tired. Different from the luxurious lifestyle she experienced in the 20th century, perhaps demonstrating the endless cycle of prostitution in life today.
Overall, a fantastic and emotional watch, if not a little confusing at some parts. (Pay attention to names…they each have 2.)
La Juive – the Jewess
La cicactrice – the scar