Thursday 22 October 2020

Streaming - John Baxter revisits L'APOLLONIDE/HOUSE OF PLEASURE (Bertrand Bonello, France, 2011) and is reminded of a story from his own literary back catalogue


All stills from L'Apollonide

     In the Paris of the belle époque, the itinerary of every visiting head of state included “an evening with the President of the Sénat.” The night, however was not wasted on a banquet, speeches and toasts. Instead, visitors were delivered to 12 rue Chabanais, a discreet building in a quiet side-street in the second arrondissement.The only indication that it housed the world’s most gifted purveyors of pleasure was a sign on the restaurant opposite. “What we serve,” it said, “is as good as what you get across the road.”

         Behind the scenes, Le Chabanais was the plaything of a syndicate of wealthy aristocrats who used it as an extension of their social lives, rather as the Playboyand Penthouse key clubs of the seventies provided places where businessmen could kick back free of family concerns and enjoy some female company. Not all went there for sex. The women were charming companions and conversationalists. Some brothels had restaurants. All had good cellars. 

         The owners also enjoyed decorating their homes-from-home, often purchasing entire rooms from international design exhibitions. Clients could experience sex à la Japan, Arabia, or England. One even had an Arctic room, complete with igloo.  

         Until France outlawed brothels in 1946 as part of a post-war moral backlash, Le Chabanais was the mecca of every sensualist. Arriving on his first visit to Paris, Salvador Dali told the taxi at the Gare Montparnasse “Take me to a whore-house.” The madame at Le Chabanais, skilled at assessing the tastes of her clients, placed him in the room reserved for voyeurs. Hereeled out three hours later with, he said, enough material to furnish his sexual fantasies for a lifetime. 

         Bertrand Bonello’s 2011 L’Apollonide/House of Pleasure aims to show that prostitution, even as enjoyed by the carriage trade, was not all champagne and roses. His eponymousbordelowes something to Le Chabanais in the way it’s furnished and managed, but the lives of the women and their clients are depicted in styles that range from documentary realism to surrealist fantasy. 

         Prostitution, not exactly illegal in post-Napoleonic France, was tolerated, providing the women registered with the police, worked in approved premises – maisons de tolerance -and submitted to a monthly health examination. (Those who failed could be jailed until cured.) To eradicate pimping, a brothel could be owned by men but had to have a woman – the traditional madame – in charge. 

         The film doesn’t romanticise prostitution, even as practiced at the summit of the profession. The madame of L’Apollonide, Marie-France (Noémie Lvovskyis kindly, as mesdames go, but business is business, and she is going broke. Since lodging and living expenses are deducted from their earnings, the women accumulate crushing debts to the house. A few fortunate ones are bought out by admirers, but most come to unhappy ends.  In the course of Bonello’s film, one dies of syphilis, another leaves after becoming infected (the man responsible sends her a sincere letter of apology), while a third finds oblivion in the opium pipe.   

         A fourth, Madeleine (Alice Banole) aka The Jewess, is blessed with an apparent dream client.Jacques (Xavier Beauvois) is handsome, loyal and rich, though eccentric. He asks her to act out a fantasy. He will present here with an emerald. She will ask if it’s a marriage proposal. Instead of answering, he will tie her up and have sex with her while wearing a mask. His sperm will travel through her body and emerge as tears. (A depiction of this effect provides the film’s striking first image.) 

         Once he produces a real emerald, she accommodates him, only to have him produce a knife while she’s helpless and slash her mouth, elongating it halfway across each cheek, leaving terrible scars. Thereafter she’s known as The One Who Laughs. She even continues to work, in demand for the less conventional kind of soirée, where nude waitresses, supervised by a dwarf hostess, serve dinner to formally-dressed dowagers – a new take on the Ladies Who Lunch.

         Jacques isn’t punished for his crime. Mutilating a prostitute was a misdemeanour at most. Science and the law confirmed their physical and intellectual inferiority. “What the criminal is to men,” explains a client, quoting a sociological text of the time, “the prostitute is to women.” Running his fingers affectionately through a girl’s hair, he explains that the skulls – and therefore the brains - of prostitutes are smaller than those of ordinary women.  The ladies of L’Apollonide have no more standing as sentient beings than Marie-France’s pet panther which lounges indolently on the same couch. 

         Bonello’s compassion seems sincere, but in his rush for universality he spreads his net too wide.To show that whores and whorehouses will always be with us, he accompanies some scenes with blues and contemporary pop. Occasionally it works, as when the woman, lamenting the death of a colleague, harmonise on wordless a capella version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, but less so when the music is The Moody Blues’ Knights in White Satin.  A final shot of girls hooking beside a modern freeway also falls flat.

         Instead of concentrating on a few characters and situations, Bonello harvests plots from a range of sources. Victor Hugo’s novel L'Homme qui Rit is responsible for the Madeleine character and her mutilations, and Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle - Kubrick’s source for Eyes Wide Shut - for the prevalence of sex and masks. The scene where a man fills a bath with champagne, then climbs in with a girl (no prizes for guessing who gets the plug end), illustrates a similar inclination on the part of Queen Victoria’s errant son, who enjoyed sitting with some cronies around a similarly furnished tub and quaffing the contents.  (In a sale of the furniture of La Chabanais, Salvador Dali bought the bath.)

         Bonello would like to condemn prostitution but his heart isn’t in it. The gowns are too sumptuous, his women too beautiful, the clients too kindly. Even the depraved Jacques is straight out of GQ. “The rich are very different to you and I,” Scott Fitzgerald is supposed to have said to Hemingway, who replied “Yes, they have more money.”  And the sex, Bonello informs us with a nudge and a wink, wasn’t bad either.   


 A few years ago, I put together a collection of erotic short stories which I published pseudonymously on Amazon as Postcards from Paris using the nom de plume “Jane Haste.” One of the stories is set in Le Chabanais, and documents a genuine if somewhat startling speciality de la maison that combined the bedroom and the kitchen. The text of that story may be found if you click on this link   Anyone wishing to buy the full collection can do so for a modest price, either by download or print on demand. For details and purchases click on this link 

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