French director Bertrand Bonello returns with his
fifth film, House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide), a
languid yet compelling story of a Parisian brothel at
the beginning of the 20th Century. Featuring an
ensemble cast of female talent, including Hafsia Herzi
and Jasmine Trinca, the story rigorously shows daily
life in the house – the camaraderie, the anguish and
the horrors of serving men in this age-old profession.
Below, Bonello reports how the film came to him in a
series of dreams, how scared he was working with a
dozen women and gives an insight into his next film, a
biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Jamie Garwood: What interested you about this era?
Bertrand Bonello: I
started to work on this because I really wanted to do
a film with a bunch of young girls. And I didn’t want
to do a film that would tell love stories today. So I
tried to find a strong image of young girls, and then
I came to this image of the girls in brothels in the
beginning of the twentieth century. I had read some
books and I was very impressed by their strength. So
after that I started to do some research, and the
second thing that really excited me was not
prostitution but the location. The idea of setting up
a film in a brothel…for me was a fantastic location
for a movie, a fantastic place for cinema.
Q: It feels very claustrophobic and oppressive inside.
Was that the kind of atmosphere you were looking for?
A: Yes. For me the fact there is no possibility
to go outside, and no windows opened, you’re cut from
reality. The outside does not exist. So for me, it was
the possibility to make a film that would become more
and more mental to the brain! To me, the brothel is
like a movie theatre. When you come into a movie
theatre, there are no windows, you don’t hear the
sound outside and you’re ready for fantasy.
Q: How did you find working with all these women
A: I was a little scared before. It’s twelve
girls so you never know! But the casting was nine
months, a very long casting, and I was very obsessed
with finding good actress I like, but most of all
finding the group. So I think I did, and they really
got on together very, very well. I felt more like a
football manager – though that’s eleven and not
Q: Are many of the actresses well known in
A: Only one – Hafsia Herzi, who won the César
for the Kechiche film Couscous. And there is another
one [Jasmine Trinca] who is Italian and very famous in
Q: But there wasn’t any pressure to cast a well-known
face in the film?
A: Not too much, not too much. I accepted to meet some
famous actresses, but the distributors agreed that
they were not so good for the part. If you have
someone too famous, it’s difficult to make a group,
because you see just her.
Q: You use split-screen and contemporary music at
times. What was behind your stylistic choices?
A: There were many things. First of all, I decided not
to feel free about everything I wanted to put in the
film. One fear when you make a film in one location is
that it’s going to be theatrical. So I wanted to give
myself the possibility to use all the tools of cinema.
Split screen is one of them, and so are the
flash-forwards. And for me, the split-screen was…I saw
the film very much as a film of prison, and the split
screen was like security cameras. This idea that
you’re never alone; even in the bathroom there is
someone watching you. And the music…it’s soul music
from the Sixties. I don’t know why but for me the soul
music represents very well the idea I had of this
bunch of women in a brothel. Maybe because there is a
relationship with slavery, maybe because it’s soul,
but really the sound of the girls for me was this
music. I don’t have a theory about why, it was just a
Q: You also show a contemporary shot of Paris at the
A: Well, it’s a fake documentary – but it’s meant to
show foreign students. It’s true that now, most
prostitutes are from abroad. First of all, there is
one character who is the same, and it shows that it
was her destiny to be a prostitute for life. Even a
hundred years after, she’s still a prostitute. It’s
something about destiny. I like the idea that we
showed it this way, because only cinema can do that.
The other thing is, for me, I saw the film as a
matrix. And how do you get out of a matrix at the end,
and back to reality?
Q: The most powerful image is the facial scar that
Madeleine endures. Is it true that this was based on
the Victor Hugo novel, L’Homme Qui Rit?
A: In fact, the film that was made of the novel. It’s
a film that was made in the twenties – The Man Who
Laughs. It’s a silent film by Paul Leni. I saw that
when I was a kid, and the images really stayed very
strongly inside of me. When I started to write, three
nights in a row I dreamed of this film. I don’t know
why. So when I woke up on the fourth morning, I said
‘OK, I’m going to try to put it inside the film to see
how it goes.’ And then as soon as I started to write
the first sequence I had a skeleton for my film with
Q: Do you think because you were reading about the
subject a lot, that’s why you were dreaming about it?
A: Ha! Yeah, maybe. And this film of Paul Leni, it’s
one my very few strong images from childhood, in terms
of film. I saw it again when I was writing, to see if
there were some details I could pick up. It’s a
Q: Have you had any problems with censorship with the
A: Not problems. A little bit in Asia. I don’t
remember exactly which countries – I think Taiwan and
Singapore. But the film also sold well abroad. I
didn’t have many problems. I’ve had my problems with
my other films, Tiresa and The Pornographer.
Q: Obviously, you’re showing it exactly as it was, so
the nudity is not gratuitous…
A: Exactly. And at the same time, if you think about
the film, there are no real sex scenes. So there’s no
real point of using censorship.
Q: And the men often seem to be clothed, with the
women naked around them…
A: Yes, that’s what I read. Even women, you see the
breasts but they are not totally naked. They have so
many clothes on them that if you get totally
undressed, and dressed again, it takes a long
Q: The women talk very frankly about sex. Why?
A: I wanted to show that sex is an everyday job. There
is nothing sacred about that. It’s just normal. Like
if a baker was talking about his bread!
Q: In England, at least, sex was never talked about
A: In France also. At that time, even married couples,
they didn’t see each other naked. They dressed under
the sheets. Even in France, people were very shy. I
think that’s why brothels existed.
Q: Did doing the film change your views on
A: Well, it’s difficult to have one truth. It’s a very
complicated subject. My opinion is that prostitution
always existed and will always exist. So I think it’s
worth trying to give these women the best working
conditions, in terms of social help and health. It’s
too difficult to close your eyes and say ‘I want to
forbid prostitution.’ Closing your eyes is not a good
Q: Are you working on a new film now?
A: Yes, I’m working on a biopic about the life of Yves
Saint Laurent. It’s François Pinault who has
got the rights to his life. We are half way through
writing the script. And we are starting to do the
casting, but I don’t think it will be someone
Q: What fascinates you about Laurent?
A: I think he’s unique. I think he’s maybe the only
one I can say who is not only a fashion designer, he’s
a real artist. And he died of that.