They say prostitution is the world's oldest profession and if that's true, then the discussion about legalizing it has been around just as long. Certainly the argument for doing so is not a bad one, and if done properly, it would create a safer environment for the women in the trade and their clients alike. For director Bertrand Bonello, "L'Apollonide" serves as his thesis on why prostitution needs to be legal but in championing the women he presumably made the movie for in such a woefully misguided, preposterous and exploitative piece of filmmaking, he undermines any point he's trying to make. Add to that a director who substitutes style for substance and you have one of the most tedious experiences so far on the Croisette this week.
The film opens in November 1899, "the twilight of the 19th century" as we're told by the onscreen text (one of the many dashes of pretension contained in the film). We're brought into the drawing rooms of the titular brothel, a high-end house of flesh where the girls are more like sisters, and transactions are preceded by intelligent conversation and drinks. Many of the girls have regulars, and when Mathilde's (Alice Barnole)client requests that he tie her up, she agrees. We return to the drawing rooms of the house only to be interrupted by her screams. She has been left covered in blood, with her mouth sliced on both sides, leaving her with a permanent, Joker-like scar.
We fast forward to March 1900 ("the dawn of the 20th century" [eyeroll]) and we settle into the day-to-day life of these girls. Led by their madame (Noémie Lvovsky), the gaggle consists of the Algerian Samira (Hafsia Herzi), Julie (Jasmine Trinca), nicknamed Kaka for her erotic speciality, Clotilde (Celine Sallette) and Lea (Adele Haenel). However, it is the young, nubile sixteen-year old Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) who joins the house who will be our entry to the main narrative. Though far younger and more inexperienced than the rest of the girls, Pauline exhibits a shrewder wit and business mind. We soon learn that the rest of the girls are deep in debt to the madame, and are essentially unable to leave, but using her business acumen, Pauline keeps herself debt-free, leaving the door wide open for her to leave at any time. Meanwhile, we learn that rising rent may close the house altogether and the madame struggles to come up with a plan that won't force them to move or worse, break up the house they have established.
This middle section is told with with ornate yet bland lethargy. The revelations that the women are beholden to their madame, and that their success is tied to the health and cleanliness of the girls, and the establishment, are not really surprising, nor worth the exhaustive investigation Bonello gives the subject. However, his real goal here is to convince us that then, as now, the trade must come under some regulation to prevent the girls from being tied forever to one employer. So how does he do this?
He displays a Lars Von Trier-like sadistic streak, punishing his characters. Opium addiction, syphilis and humiliating sexual encounters (one involving champagne, another involving a midget) all abound to victimize the girls. But it doesn't end there. Perhaps sensing the film needs a bit more visual pizzazz, we get two graphic flashbacks to the lip slicing sequence. Combine that with random and fairly pointless split screen sequences, the amateur-hour use of anachronistic music, and the lazy choice of an African slave song sung by the girls for a deceased colleague, and you have a film that flails about, trying desperately to find meaning but constantly foiling its own purpose.
With plenty of skin, blood and suffering, Bonello tries to make his point by shocking viewers into the belief that a better, more equal environment must be created. And it's a valid point. But what Bonello seems to forget is that these women also need to be respected and by treating his characters the way he does, the director is frankly no better than the mouth slicer in the film. "L'Apollonide" tries to trade up a realistic, historically based melodrama into a profound and pointed statement on the sex trade but fails on both points. Creakily pretentious, with amateur execution and a completely wrongheaded approach "L'Apollonide" is a sensationalist bore. [F]