Casting himself as director, producer, writer and composer, Bertrand Bonello makes a wise choice in House of Tolerance; the story of a Parisian brothel, and the women that inhabit it, at the end of the 19th century. His use of light and shadow is remarkable and, as the camera pans slowly across the claustrophobic interiors of the brothel, his cinematographic prowess is clear. Complementing this image is Bonello’s outstanding score; minimalistic piano tones and drum beats punctuate and echo through the haunting atmosphere whilst violin strings loom heavily overhead. Bonello’s creation is one that is as artistically beautiful as it is metaphorical, however, these elements serve as a double-edged sword creating a work that stresses its symbolism to the extent that the characters contained within fail to define themselves, which ultimately makes for an unsatisfying and mostly dull narrative.
Bertrand Bonello may be a jack of all trades but he is by no means a master of none, succeeding alone where a collaborative project may have fallen apart. In spite of this, recognition must be given to the cast. It’s more difficult to review the acting in a foreign language film but, whilst none of them individually steal the show as a collective they capture the tainted communal atmosphere perfectly. Calm and humorous exchanges between characters are believable and, in darker scenes, their tragic portrayals bind our sympathies to their struggles.
Similar use of juxtaposition is present throughout the film. Just as calmer communal moments contrast against the darker moments when characters are alone so too does talk of life and freedom contrast against the reality of imprisonment in the film. Childhood innocence is represented alongside scenes of sexual perversion and moments of laughter reside in a scene of deathly silence. Bonello’s stylistic presentation of the good being marred by the grim presence of it’s antithesis underlies the entire film with a very uncanny feeling.
However the Achilles’ heel of House of Tolerance is that it relies too much upon metaphorical imagery and style, to the extent that the characters inhabiting it fail to develop beyond the metaphors they portray. The constant symbolism grows tiresome early into the film’s second act and fails to save the consistently dull narrative. Despite its artistic achievements, House of Tolerance simply isn’t very interesting to watch and Bonello’s directive flair, rather than refining the narrative, turns a poor story into a mind-numbingly monotonous one.
Whilst Bonello’s work should be praised for its intellectual merits, its tedious use of metaphor and dull narrative prevent it from being labeled as a brilliant piece of work or even one that could be considered watchable. Unless you happen to find yourself particularly interested in the symbolic plight of French prostitutes it’s not worth your time or your money.