CANNES REVIEW: Sensuous, Intriguing L'Apollonide Takes a Fatal Wrong Turn

I was with French director Bertrand Bonello's L'Apollonide for about seven-eighths of the way through, which reminded me how painful it is to be tossed out of a picture just when you thought you were secure in its embrace. L'Apollonide -- its English title is House of Tolerance -- takes place in a Parisian bordello at the turn of the last century, and mostly, it's a sensuous, lurid, fascinating picture. The madam (Noémie Lvovsky) runs her house with a strict air of elegance and an even stricter set of rules. Bonello details the women's daily routines, including their assignations with their regular and their random clients, with respectful curiosity.

There's Julie (Jasmine Trinca), who gratefully accepts the attentions, and the money, of an older, regular patron (played by the wonderful French actor Jacques Nolot); Samira (Hafsia Herzi), the Arab woman who may be a novelty attraction for the clients, but who's considered just one of the girls in this fairly democratic sort-of sorority house; and Madeleine (Alice Barnole), an earthy, intelligent beauty who, early in the film, is maimed by a client she knows and trusts.

At first Bonello presents only the aftermath of that attack -- the sadistic client has carved a perpetual smile into her face, a la Conrad Veidt's Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs. Brunello cuts to that image sharply, and the moment is shocking and brutal, but not exploitative. Most of L'Apollonide is rich in texture and low on plot -- Bonello prefers to focus, rightly, on the day-to-day lives of these women, tracing the contours of their anxieties and tragedies. The production design and costuming (or, in some cases, lack of it) are superb: The women are draped in embroidered velvets and seductive swaths of lace; the rigid corsets they wear look both uncomfortably restrictive and sensual -- it's not always possible, or desirable, to be comfy and erotic at the same time.

But late in the film, Bonello takes a serious misstep, breaking faith with the audience by including a moment of graphic horror and violence that's wholly unnecessary. He compounds that mistake by making an even worse one, offering us a final image (followed by a coda) that trades in dumb, heavy-handed metaphors. How can something that at first felt so good go so wrong? All it takes to botch a film is one slip of the knife.