Cannes Review: 'L'Apollonide' A Preposterous, Misguided, Sensationalist Bore About Prostitution

by Kevin Jagernauth
May 16, 2011 2:02 AM
6 Comments
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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]

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6 Comments

  • Vanessa | March 14, 2013 4:24 PMReply

    I don't agree at all. I have watched the film and I must admit that this is by far the best film I have ever seen in a long time.
    Bertrand Bonello shows the difficult life of prostitues, how they are misinterpreted by society in a way showing that they are human with feelings and many problems that are difficult to solve. He shows these women are beautiful and kind , they try to survive by earning a living with prostitution. He shows that they are more human then other women because they help each other which creates a strong bond for instance when Samira finds out that the man she was going to sleep with was the same man who sliced up her friend. She instantly calls the others to take revenge upon him. They are never envious of each other but are like sisters. They are a family.
    In addition, the colours ,music and clothing make it a perfectly directed masterpiece.
    Then by showing the past and towards the end the 21.century, makes us realise our ignorance towards prostitution and that this problem still exists in our society.
    L'Apollonide is an inspiring and important film that makes you realise how we are sometimes unbelievably lucky to have good lives compared to these women that have to struggle by selling their bodies for money. It makes you see how we all are sinners ,we are all human beings with feelings and fears.

  • Casey | February 13, 2012 1:31 AMReply

    This is a serious and complex film. It takes the audience out of their comfort zone. Not everyone will understand the film, including the author of this article. The film is about women that may have no other choice but to sell their bodies, about freaks that buy their bodies, about these women's inability to pay off their so called "debt", about cruelty, about general stigma that surrounds these women. The reference to the pseudo study in the film, the music, the ending - all help to make the audience understand - there are a lot of issues that stay relevant and acute no matter what century it is.

  • jonboy | January 20, 2012 6:40 AMReply

    The film is neither polemic or sentimentally morose. True, the characters and the madame have their flaws. True, a bordello is a bizarre environment in which to raise children. Does the film make the audience think about the subject matter? There have been few films that have tried to deal with the matter genuinely: though, there have been comedies like Irma La Douce, and Pretty Woman, or more sordid dramas such as Midnight Cowboy and Christiane F, where prostitution is a means to an end. The juxaposition of Clothilde from an embittered opium user in a brothel of the early 20th century to a streetwalker and probable drug addict of the 21st, along with the musical interludes throughout, should appeal to anyone who has met or spoken with women who have been "in the business". The film shows that prostitutes are women who sell their bodies in order to live, and in order to deal with the social odium and hypocrisy, they live in a strange demi-monde "between the light and the half-light" - and no one film is going to address that in a way that will appeal to intellectuals and criticsc alike. The film portrays the women as victims who make the best of their lot and who are entitled to respcet and dignity. Prostitution was, and is, a risky business. Any film that deals with the issue without being censorious, judgemental or smug should be welcomed. Until the discovery of antibiotics, Syphillis was as incurable as AIDS is today. The film will take people out of their comfort zones, and make them think, which is no bad thing.

  • John Preedy | October 28, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    I saw this last night and I wish that I hadn’t. It wasn’t all bad but from the moment that the title sequence, which came after an introduction set at the turn of the 19th century, was accompanied by soul music, through the repeated central violent act, to the wake held for one of the girls, who dies rather rapidly from venereal disease, which was accompanied by the Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin”, I hated it.
    I have never before seen a brothel portrayed as a sort of funeral parlour where everyone talks in hushed tones and no music is playing. If this was meant to convey the sadness of the situation surely it would have been better to try to contrast scenes of public gaiety with private sadness. In this film there was just gloom. I can’t imagine any client coming back after the first visit.
    The film was written and directed by Bertrand Bonello and the man clearly has no friends, or at least none that he listens to, or none that dare to give him an honest opinion! His directing was self indulgent in the extreme. There was no need to repeatedly dwell on the scene where one of the clients disfigures a girl. The same girl describes twice a dream in which she cries out the sperm which this man has left inside her. Verbally this was a powerful image but there was certainly no need to try to portray it visually, it just looked ridiculous!
    The film should be recut by an experienced film-maker and reduced in length by about 20 to 30 minutes.
    I left this film profoundly angry and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

  • scribe | May 17, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    hilarious! They should have used that title as the tag-line!

  • meropi | May 16, 2011 7:14 AMReply

    And I was actually looking forward to this one... oh well.

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