Part I: The Film
As this was my third consecutive year attending the Victoria Film Fest’s opening gala, I had a general idea of what to expect. I knew they were going to be showing a pre-selected film for the first time at the gala and there was going to be an event afterwards where there would be music, as well as great food and wine.
What I didn’t know was how I would feel about the film. Sure, I’d read the synopsis for the French film “House of Pleasures” otherwise known as “House of Tolerance” or “L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close)” and I was intrigued, but I didn’t really know what to expect. At this point, my record for films at the opening gala was 1-1, I loved last year’s Japanese Film “Chef of the South Polar”, but I couldn’t stand the French film I saw my first year, “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky”. As a result, walking into the Empire Theatre, I was cautiously optimistic but also a little excited.
The other unknown was how they would open the film. The year before, they opened with a crowd of volunteers as a flash mob, with cupcakes for everyone in the audience. This year, there were a few more surprises. Because it was first year that Swiss films were getting its own showcase at the film fest, the Consulate General of Switzerland was flown in and he gave a speech on how proud he was that Swiss films at a presence at the film fest. There was also a goodbye given to the film projector. For those of you who are more educated in the cinematic arts and use equipment in the industry on a regular basis, perhaps you knew that theatres no longer used projectors and had fully transitioned over to using digital; but it was news to me.
It was a little sad to see technology that had been strong and fully ingrained in film culture for over a hundred years finally be put to rest; though the hilarious slideshow with horrible photo editing that accompanied the mock funeral lightened the mood.
As I said before, my previous experience with French films wasn’t the greatest, but I wanted to give it another go. After all, I’d grown up watching Chinese films, both in my native Cantonese and in Mandarin and God knows, not every single one of them was a hit to me either.
For people who haven’t seen the film and who are waiting to see it either at Sips ‘N Cinema or the regular film showing on Sunday or waiting to rent it, I’ll do my best not to spoil too much of the film for you, but be warned, there are spoilers ahead.
To me, the film was essentially trying to portray the other side of life in a brothel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The film wanted to show that the women who worked in the brothel were not just sexual objects who were paid to satisfy the urges of rich aristocrats who were bored, but that they were human too, with real issues and emotions that deserved empathy and understanding from the outside world.
I think that the director, Bertrand Bonello, succeeded in accomplishing this goal. If nothing else, I did sympathize with the women who lived and worked in the brothel and understand that they often chose to stay and do what they did because there was no alternative. The film even took it one step further and made the madam of the brothel, Marie-France, sympathetic. You hear stories of madams who own brothels as greedy, selfish women who exploit the women who work for them, who don’t care about their pain or any abuse they may have suffered; all they care about is making a profit.
With Marie-France, you get the real sense that she is struggling to keep the brothel open and it really has nothing to do with turning a profit. She is a single mother in the film, working to raise a young son and daughter and she too has a history with the brothel, L’Apollonide. Like the women she employed, she also once worked for the brothel herself but she was able to earn enough money and rise above poverty to buy the brothel herself. It’s a real success story, if you ask me, one that was rare for women of that time period. You also get the sense that although she is strict about the women paying their debts, she really does care for them. She spends time with them on outings and later on the film, she also keeps and find a place for two of her girls who are permanently injured and sick. Maybe I’m painting Marie-France out to be more a sympathetic character than she truly is, but she IS the most empathetic madam I’d ever seen on screen.
As for the girls, the film opens with one of the main characters, Madeleine, being attacked by one of her regular customers and given what’s known as a “Glasgow Smile” (if you don’t know what that is, I’d suggest looking up the historical significance on Wikipedia and/or watching the film “The Dark Knight”. On a side note, when my partner leaned over and whispered to me “Why so serious”, I nearly jumped out of my skin.) The Glasgow smile permanently scars Madeleine’s face and as a result, she hides away from interacting with clients most of the time and instead helps out in the kitchen and with the rest of the housework. Her scarring is an event that the film returns to over and over, each time more graphic than the last, perhaps because Madeleine herself keeps thinking about the event herself.
The other girls also have their own set of problems. Clotilde, who reminded me of Maggie Gyllenhaal with sharper, more angular features; is one of the oldest girls at 28, having been there for 12 years. She makes no secret of the fact that she is tired and depressed with her lot in life and wants desperately to leave the brothel. She even goes as far as to say that if her regular client, Micheux, pays off her debts, she’ll marry him. Eventually, Micheux tires of her, wanting someone who can be happy spending time with him and Clotilde turns to drugs (presumably opium) to ease her pain.
For Julie (nicknamed Caca), Samira, & Lea, their struggles primarily seem to deal with their lack of control over the needs of regular clients (though not abusive, can be repetitive and boring) and while they don’t love their regular clients, it feels good to have a patron take care of them. For Julie, that desire to stay a man’s primary mistress grows into a genuine need to be loved as the film goes on.
And finally, onto Pauline, the newest and youngest member of the brothel at 15. She is the only one in the film that you see join the brothel out of her own free will, borne out of the desire to make her money and see the world for herself. Though she is awkward at first, you never get the sense that she is bitter or depressed about her situation. It seems like she’s trying out an experiment of sorts by working at the brothel and in spite of what the other girls tell her about owing debt, she always firmly believes that she can leave on her own accord.
It was the personal stories of the girls and a few funny moments, such as Pauline quipping after her first job that it wasn’t easy to have sex in a bathtub filled with champagne, but she did it anyway; that made the film more enjoyable to me than it otherwise would have been. About halfway through, the film starts to lag and all the stories become convoluted. It may be because I don’t understand the French editing style of cinematography, but I found that the film jumping from scene to scene and character to character detrimental to the movie and completely unnecessary. It made the characters’ stories hard to follow and some scenes even had music cutting in and out at varying volumes, which only served as an annoyance.
I’ve heard several theories regarding the film’s ending and I’m not sure what to make of any of them or the ending itself. I will say that in spite of the drawbacks, this film was better than the last French film I’d seen, as I did care for the characters. I hope that you’ll see the film for yourselves and come to your own conclusions. If nothing else, it’s a film that causes you to sympathize and empathize with women in a profession that you may have never given a thought to.
Part 2: The Gala
After the film was over, we walked across the street to the Atrium where the gala was being held. The Atrium is the perfect venue for the gala because of the wide open space and the acoustics, thanks to the architecture of the ceiling. We walked in with the red, or rather, pink carpet treatment with pretend cardboard cut-outs of photographers snapping photos of us.
We walked into the main concourse, already filling up with people. We managed to make it through the crowd to the buffet table and enjoy some of the food laid out by volunteers. It was one of the best tables of hors oeuvres I’d ever seen. Put on by Spinnakers Gastro Brew Pub, there was everything there from Gulf Island shrimp & spinach local free range egg roulade and Cortes Island oysters raw on the half shell with pink peppercorn mignonette to roasted beet carpaccio and Victoria gin cured wild sockeye salmon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try everything on the menu, given how many people were at the table.
Out of all of the food I tried though, the smoked salmon was my favorite and it paired really well with the tart tang of the grapefruit martini I was sipping. As we walked around, mingling with the crowds and enjoying our drinks, we snapped our own photos of the décor, the food and the crowds milling about on the concourse.
As the music from two local DJs pulsed through the room, we spotted a robot that someone had built, sitting on a chair. It was really neat because it responded to people’s movements and dialogue by moving its head and having the lights that were on its body flicker on and off. There was also a display that paid a fitting tribute to the film projector that we snapped a photo of.
It was a great night, all in all and I loved having the opportunity to be there and to experience an interesting film and a great gala, once again in an amazing venue. It’s one of my favourite events of the year and I definitely look forward to it every year. If you haven’t been, I highly suggest that you try it out next year it’s definitely worth the admission price. J I do plan to see at least a few more films this weekend, so you’ll see a few more reviews in the coming days.
P.S. Photos to come, editing them is taking a little longer than I thought.
P.P.S And they’re done!