There are striking similarities between House of Tolerance and Sleeping Beauty, both films that debuted at last year’s Cannes. It’s something of an oddity. There aren’t quite clear, modern human interests that may be informing these films’ creations. They take place one hundred years apart: Sleeping Beauty in the present, House of Tolerance in 1900. The similarities, however, are striking. Both follow classy escorts who dress in Victorian wear (or otherwise classy garments) and serve men in fancy mansions. House of Tolerance, naturally, does this organically, where in Sleeping Beauty it is a niche job. More importantly though, both films follow women brought into this position by choice. They spend their time wondering whether the life is right for them. For the most part, the women in House of Tolerance like it.
The titular house is a sort of bizarre social experiment. The women rely on the house. They are forbidden to leave unattended, and so they remain cooped up. This creates a wonderful dynamic. They live as though in a dorm, and they treat each other like siblings. Everyone helps each other out. The job bores them, but they are fed well and drink champagne every night. Broadly, the film paints the brothel as a mostly fine place to live. In another sense, they’re enslaved. Each woman is slowly indebted to the house’s owner, an otherwise agreeable woman. In spite of this, they’re treated well, and they tend toward enjoying their life in the house.
In slow movements we’re shown their displeasure. There is little way to escape their debt. They never leave when they intend to. Some girls come down with disease, others are bruised or sore after their time with clients. Most don’t seem to want to leave though. They don’t know what they’d do outside of the house. Some have even come from other professions simply because they thought that they would enjoy this more. A strong stance is never taken. Yes, it’s sometimes cruel and sick, but the environment is better than a poor woman could expect outside of the house. There’s a back and forth to everything here. The light is primarily a positive one, but what’s tugging at it, however gently, is truly terrible. This creates a great dichotomy in which these women exist.
The film’s final shot attempts to put this all in context. It jumps across one hundred years to the present, showing modern women walking the streets of France looking for clients. It’s an odd juxtaposition, and we’re left wondering what to take of it. In some ways, the juxtaposition seems insensitive. Is the director saying that what we have seen is a lost art? Is the film saying these modern women are being mistreated? Like most of the film, it’s most likely deliberately open ended. The film does not feel slow, but it distinctly has no trajectory. We watch the women work, we watch the house decline. Men come and go, women come and go. It all works to form a collage of insight from which to build our judgement.
Working off of this is the way in which the film is structured. It is largely told chronologically, but on occasion time will loop. We’ll see events and then, unaware that we are not proceeding in time, witness more until a moment that we recognize recurs. It’s delightfully disorienting, and it works to let us see multiple women’s experiences of a single night. Other moments are cut across the length of the film. We never know if we will see something, and we never know exactly when any one thing is happening. It’s all happening, slowly, across the year 1900, and that is all. Sometimes the film will cut into quarters, showing four simultaneous events, often dreary, laborious. It’s stunning visually. The outfits and sets make the period appear to have been gorgeous and romantic. This may well not be the case, but it’s the lens through which we’re made to look. There’s also a sharp score that drops in occasionally and blares gritty soul music at us. This anachronism may not be so daring in a post Marie Antoinette world, but it works to great effect in setting the mood of the house.
House of Tolerance comes away having told us about many aspects about these women but having made no definitive statement about any one thing. It’s a beautiful world and a surprisingly nice one, but there is no strict story about one or many women nor about what their occupation means. They are people, we learn that, though it’s hard to imagine having gone in without this knowledge. The film wants to conclude with commentary, and though we’ll certainly consider this, we aren’t given enough direction to take away a strong meaning here. Instead, what House of Tolerance is is a fine film about these women and this house. It may not have any strong purpose, but it need not pretend to. Even if it doesn’t quite go anywhere, there’s plenty to take in.