House of Tolerance

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

11 February

Cynthia Payne acquitted of running a brothel, 1987

On this day in 1987, 54-year-old Londoner Cynthia Payne was acquitted of being a madam and living off the immoral earnings of others. She’d been arrested before, in 1978, when her suburban sex parties for pensioners had attracted the attention of the newspapers, not least because she accepted Luncheon Vouchers as payment for activities including being spanked by young ladies. On the first occasion she’d been sentenced to 18 months in prison, reduced to six months on appeal, of which she served four. Payne’s notoriety stemmed in large part from her unwillingness to be coy about what she was up to. She claimed she had every right to hold a party in her house, that what people got up to behind closed doors was their own affair, and that she had in any case been too busy making tea and sandwiches to indulge in the sex sessions herself.

This second bust had happened at a party to celebrate completion of a film about her young life (Wish You Were Here, starring Emily Lloyd). Indignant that ordinary people should be prosecuted for harmless private activity, Payne went on to stand as a member of Parliament as a candidate of her own Payne and Pleasure Party. Though standing in the one of the most secure Conservative seats in the country, Kensington, where she lined up alongside candidates such as John Crowley (Anti Yuppie Revolutionary Crowleyist, Vegetarian Visionary), Brian Goodier (Anti Left Wing Fascist) and Screaming Lord Sutch (Official Monster Raving Loony Party). She was not elected.

House of Tolerance (2011, dir: Bertrand Bonello)

Known originally as L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close, and in some countries as House of Pleasures, here’s a film set in a bordello at the time of the Belle Époque. And, this being France, the girls are fine of body and of mind. They dress well and inhabit a beautiful house full of lovely things. Their clients are gentlemen who say things such as “I want to tie you up. May I?” This is prostitution as career choice not as act of desperation. And, having set all this up – the dark wood and flock wallpaper, the paintings and clink of champagne glasses – having massaged our expectations in one direction, director Bertrand Bonello does something which the languid pace and stifled yawns of the girls have not prepared us for. He introduces a plot.

How much to give away here is the question: I will just say that one of the girls is treated in a way that we haven’t been expecting, appallingly in fact, and that this sets a timebomb ticking in a film that then more or less goes back to the tick tock of the grandfather clock, the exquisite tedium of living inside a gilded cage, of living apart from society.

House of Tolerance derives its power from this split – all is languid up above while down below in the psychological depths, we suspect that the Girl Who Laughs, as the appallingly treated woman is called, will get her payback. We just don’t know when. Bonello takes the maison close at its own estimation, making it look gorgeous, populating it with beautiful women who are frequently in a state of undress, showing their living arrangements as collegial, boring but amicable – they’re one big happy family in fact, or as much of a family as permanent indebtedness to the madam and the threat of syphilis and opium addiction will allow. And at the end of this strange mix of quasi-documentary and thriller Bonello throws in a brief epilogue set in our age of cars and concrete, which asks us to think again about what we’ve just seen and asks whether it was as bad as what’s replaced it.

Why Watch?

  • Frequent nudity has rarely been less prurient
  • Beautiful sets, beautiful clothes, beautiful women
  • Lush cinematography by Josée Deshaies
  • Anachronistic music – rock, blues – used to great effect

House of Pleasures aka House of Tolerance – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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