Directed by Bertrand Bonello
For those who have seen films depicting a turn of the century brothel, Bonello’s film will seem familiar, at least in that he explores subjects and narrative threads that seem integral to the setting. Sexual violence, disease, companionship and oppression all feature in L’Apollonide. The film stands out in different ways, through its pacing, style and structure.
There is no central character in this film, with the architecture of the house becoming the central image. This is a place we rarely leave and it is importantly divided into a public and private space. The public space is the imagined world of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an atmosphere of rich textures, veils, colours and oppulence. It is the play-ground of the idealized female, the woman who will be whatever your mind can conceive. The private spaces are far more bare, a bed has a single white sheet and is shared by many women. They are also the interior spaces most likely to be hit by sunlight and feel rich with life. It is the space of comfort, happiness and family.
Though the film hardly romanticizes the life in a brothel, not only depicting the physical costs (from disease to violence) but the inequality of the financial strain it represents for these women. Instead of earning more and more, they all fall deeper into debt as the house charge them for the bare essentials of their trade with increased vehemency the longer they stay. It is nonetheless admirable for creating a space of intimate femininity. Jealousy and resentment may creep into the fold now and then, but this house of ill-repute represents a rare ground where women can live and confine in each other. The conversations are frank, open and loving.
The film further comes to life through a variety of cinematic techniques that subvert traditional readings. Split-screens are used throughout the film, usually as a means of depicting sex. The effect renders the sexuality between the women and the men who pay them as un-stimulating. It turns the viewer into a peeping tom, looking in on people in a private moment. This is an interesting effect, because it’s not a “personal” moment in the strictest sense. These people are not in love, they are not in their home and one of them is being paid. Bonello’s decision to put us at a distance does not allow us to be compliant in the act.
The use of music has been a point of contention for some critics, especially the use of the song “Nights in White Satin”. The sequence in question feels at once out of place in the film, while also being faithful to the mood and atmosphere. The issue is perhaps that it’s intention exists beyond the frame of the narrative, except as much as narrative relates to style.
Surrealism plays an integral part of the narrative, the film opening with a bewitching nightmare sequence. Surreal qualities rarely enter the narrative except to punctuate ideas and narrative. The storyline of one character in particular beginning and ending with imagery befitting the works of Man Ray and Luis Bunuel. It adds an extra dimension to the film, an appropriate addition to a house filled with beds and where dreams are supposed to come true.
L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison Close) is a film of strong atmosphere and thrilling characters. Punctuated by moments of violence and action, the film mostly meanders in a dreamy underworld, lazy and calm. It is a world of beauty and life, but the illusion is not drawn too strongly, the peace never lasts.
– Justine Smith
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