House of Tolerance (original French title L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close, 2011) is set in a Paris brothel during the twilight of 19th century/eve of 20th century. The story focuses entirely on twelve females aged around 16-30 living and working in the brothel as prostitutes. This is not a ‘knocking shop’, as Madame Marie-France (Noémie Lvovsky) is keen to impress, but a respectable establishment where elegant, if sometimes dangerous men go to meet elegant woman bedecked in semi-revealing Belle Époque fashions and fine silk lingerie.
Costume designer for House of Tolerance, Anaïs Romand (César award winner), approached the project with a view that true period authenticity can never be achieved; instead she aimed to “look for authenticity with the girls and the way they would live in their costumes”. Talking exclusively to Clothes on Film, Romand walks us through her visual interpretation of these characters and how she recreated such an exquisite looking past.
Director Bertrand Bonello shot House of Tolerance on one continuous set to allow freedom of movement throughout the brothel. The first post credits scene introduces us to the girls as they strap each other into stays and corsets, button up dresses and roll stockings topped with ribbons. “It was important to us” Romand explains, “for the story, the atmosphere of the film to be in 1900, to really feel that period, so everything was carefully chosen to get that feeling of ‘being there’”. This initial scene plays like dressing up; these are girls not women. Their very adult job has not made them mature, if anything quite the opposite. They have regressed as children. Sex, the art of pleasing clients, is a game.
Virtually all costumes in the film were made from scratch, “Only two dresses bought in a flea market in Paris were reworked and cut to fit”. The beautifully intricate corsets were also new. “I designed the corsets and they were made by Danièle Boutard, a well known ‘maître d’art’ in corsets and period costumes in general”. Romand agrees that despite the constriction of a corset, the girls were comparatively relaxed as she tended to avoid the more unforgiving ‘S bend’ fit, “I’m glad the girls seem ‘liberated’; I wanted them to seem very at ease and used to wearing corsets, which was not so obvious when the actresses discovered what a corset is at the first fitting! It took many fittings to get them used to the corset, to learn how to breathe and move in it”.
Romand endeavoured to find each girl’s deep character and represent it visually. Samira (Hafsia Herzi) for example often wears red, perhaps inferring her exotic ethnicity. “It was essential to give each girl a personality” she confirms, “and the cast was great because they all had very different types of beauty, really inspiring for the costumes”. In addition to colourful frocks and lingerie, the stays and corsets are individually symbolic, albeit subtly “My intention was not to have all the corsets being the S bend (some are) but more to find the shape that would fit each girl’s body and character”. Fabrics used included metres of dyed silk, very thin linens and cottons (far trickier to locate). Lace for dresses, drawers and corsets was purchased at the Paris flea market.
Symbolism can be ascribed to physically and mentally scarred Madeleine’s (Alice Barnole) red dress worn during the finale’s dream sequence; however it did not reflect a more obvious desire for revenge. Romand explains, “The red dress was really to draw attention to her body claiming for love, she wears a mask and the dress is very transparent, it’s more a desire of liberation than vengeance”. Inhibitions are an important aspect of the story, in that the girls cannot possess any. When naive Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) is auditioned by Madame Marie-France, she is asked to strip away layer after layer of clothing until naked. She is exposed fully, and with all the implications of her new life, i.e. little chance of marriage or children, there is no turning back. “You are not here to make jam” Madame reminds her.
As Pauline is shown around the brothel she wears drab grey in contrast to Samira’s red silk night gown. Soon Pauline comes to enjoy the togetherness and playful exhibitionism of the house. Anaïs Romand always pictured this cavernous home as a theatre, somewhere the girls could prepare for their role as pleasure givers, “The intention was to show the girls at work as if they were jewels in a box, displayed for the customers, in contrast with the poor and sad lives they have in the shabby rooms where they live. It is a kind of a little theatre they put together, with fake jewellery, joy, love, champagne, evening dresses. Behind the stage it’s quite another life for them, so it was interesting to show a certain opulence and luxury”.
Romand acknowledges that strong teamwork was vital to her role, particularly in regards to set design, “We settled the balance between set and costumes all through shooting with Josée Deshaies the director of photography and Bertrand Bonello. I was present during the whole shoot and so was able to carefully prepare each scene with production designer Alain Guffroy, Josée and Bertrand, and of course there had been a good preparation ahead”. Before filming, Romand frequented era specific paintings and undertook “a great deal of reading” in order to find inspiration.
Although dazzling, the costumes in House of Tolerance function as period scene setters and to elevate character rather than mere abstract beauty. Anaïs Romand is evidently an artist, her work is meticulous and breathtaking in detail, but more importantly she is a storyteller.
With thanks to Anaïs Romand.
© 2012 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.