L'Apollonide is one of those films that doesn't have much impact upon viewing, but keeps lingering in the mind long afterward. Therefore it is probably best to have a review come a few weeks after the screening (laziness does not factor into this, really…). Although it is set at the dawn of a new century (the twentieth, to be precise), it paints a sad picture of the end of an era. The name refers to the brothel the film is set in, although there is more to this establishment than just sex. It is a gentleman's club, if you prefer. Men come there to converse, to drink, and yes, also to have sex, but it is clear the social intercourse is just as important as the sexual. For a film that concerns the life of prostitutes, there is surprisingly little sex, and what is shown is often half or fully clothed, as was the habit in those days (there is abundant female nudity, to be sure). But the film is far more interested in the dynamics of the working girls as a group and the dynamics between the girls and their clients, than in showing the actual deed.
As far as story goes, there is very little to tell. Brothels (or 'houses of tolerance,' as in the English title) were in decline at the time, and L'Apollonide is on the verge of going bankrupt. A gruelling scenario in which one of the girls' faces is disfigured recurs a couple of times. A new girl joins the house, and leaves soon afterward. These events loosely form a narrative, but they are important in terms of how the film wants to depict life in a brothel. The downstairs area, where the guests meet and converse with the girls, is very opulent and lush, almost decadent. With this in mind alone, one would think life for the girls is not that bad. But considering that conditions in the girls' upstairs quarters are dire, and that they are all so much in debt to the madam of the house (Noémie Lvovsky) that they cannot leave, L'Apollonide starts to feel like a prison, a suffocating environment that forces the girls together for support and solidarity. In the only outdoor scene, the women are taken to the country, and they have one of their rare joyful moments in uninhibited innocence, resembling a bunch of high school girls on a field trip. These are the moments when they can be themselves instead of the playthings of bored men.
The group dynamics are the key focal point of the film. The girls are often shown together, slumbering on each other (the screenshot is a good example of this), while the men are out of frame, or used almost as props. This portrayal as a group causes the different characters to have very little individuality, which is intentional for what the film wants to convey, but makes it harder to get into. The new girl Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) shows a little more characterization, but she exits the film fairly soon, as her character realizes she needs to get out before her debts force her to stay. The Woman Who Laughs (Alice Barnole, the character's nickname coming from the scars left after a client cuts her face) also stands out from the crowd, and plays a key role in one of just two sequences set outside L'Apollonide, a dreamlike, somewhat surreal scene of erotic fetishism with her as the centerpiece. The other women are interchangeable and form almost a single character. As the film moves towards the end, the feeling of a paradise lost gets stronger… and the tightly knit group is bound to fall apart, but not before they make one last stand.
The men in the film are almost invariably portrayed as weak and somewhat deviant. The sex is more about fulfilling their fantasies (a geisha, a robot) than about the actual act, their stay in L'Apollonide constituting an escape from the reality of a changing world. They long for control over the girls, and in their conversations a certain dédain for the girls is felt. They are lost souls, an image of bored decadence. In one telling scene, one of the clients cannot force himself to go home, wishing to stay forever in this 'safe' place, sheltered from the world outside. The fact that there are no windows almost makes it feel as if they are returning to their maternal womb.
The cinematography enhances the focus on the women. Bonello always keeps them in frame, slowly moving the camera over them, with the male characters often shown fleetingly or behind a mask. There is a deliberate painterly feel to the images, which invokes the likes of Renoir and Manet, both in pose and in the more technical details like costume and lighting. This romanticism contrasts with the starker, colder shots when the women are shown together in their attic living space, to remind us of what is act and what is real. And the reality is much more depressing than the surface reveals, just as there is more to this film than one would think on first view.