In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michaelangelo

– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

It is a fact well-known that scent is a powerful trigger for arousal – not just of a sexual nature, but an emotional one as well. Memories, too, are inexplicably modulated by recurring scents, and a triggering scent often comes without the conscious recollection of a memory, leaving one in a nebulous state until realisation. It is no wonder then, that Bertrand Bonello’s L’apollonide is a evocation of this very sensuality, promising dreamlike delirium and corporeal fantasies. A strict narrative is entirely secondary, and the intention is to convey the sort of hazy atmosphere associated with plumes of opium smoke in the fin-du-siecle bordello.

It is less a drama than a luxuriously-paced anthropological study in a particular group of women at a particular time and place in history – as if scrolling through a post-Impressionist painting. And what a painting it is – it would be difficult to leave this film with remarking of its cinematography and colour palette: a languorously decadent melange of golds, ceruleans, greens, and ever-striking crimson. The exquisitely opulent textures of the fabrics practically beg to be stroked through the screen, with all the lushness of Boldini and the intricacy of Klimt. It is the surreal perversity of Venus in Furs combined with the almost-nostalgic opulence of Pretty Baby to explore the excess and tragedy of a ‘house of tolerance’.

It would be both predictable and lazy of Bonello to indulge in scenes of explicit sexuality – thank goodness he does not engage. Ironically, the sex itself is secondary, while sexuality itself is foregrounded, preferring eroticism over vulgarity. Similarly, men are secondary, flitting in and out in the same fashion as female characters are subjected to in other films. The focus is not on the men’s animalistic pleasure, but the glassy-eyed resignation of the women as they complete their ‘job’. Men are defined by their freakish sexual fetishes and proclivities, over which the women collectively compare notes at breakfast the morning after.

Thus, Bonello’s triumph here is the entire focus on this group of women, and compassionately depicting the fascinating dynamics between them, borne of an unique situation. Contrary to how groups of women are usually portrayed onscreen, there is a familial camaraderie between them, as they cope with their occupation in a practical and unsentimental way. To all of them, there is a sense of graceful weltschmerz that exceeds their years, and it draws them even closer. Each of the women is a fascinating character study, and all are developed to satisfaction – not merely as prostitutes, but as fully-realised characters. It is interesting in this way how Bonello cleverly juxtaposes the film into scenes of night and day; the former marked by lounging in the salon to await visiting gentlemen; and the latter marked by domesticity and the realities of their situation, choosing palettes of Beraud over Toulouse-Lautrec nights.

For all its sumptuousness, there is an eerie coldness that underlies the film, not unlike the expressions on the women’s faces as they pleasure their clients. We see them go through the motions of sex, protection, finances, and tragedy – all within the smothering confines of the brothel, and suddenly the hazy aroma of perfume becomes toxic instead of intoxicating. Appropriately, there is an undercurrent of the fear, punctuated by the almost dada-istic voyeurism of certain scenes, reminiscent of Bunuel and funhouse mannequins, particularly those involving Madeleine (played with extreme pathos by the surreally beautiful Alice Barnole), who becomes known as “La femme qui rit” (an allusion to Hugo’s similarly titled, “L’homme qui rit”). Her horrific ordeal is not presented all at once, but interleaved chronologically into various parts of the film, intensifying the shock of it. Alice’s vindication (and for all the women, really) is symbolically realised at the end with grim satisfaction, in yet another scene that hovers somewhere between reality and fantasy.

The film attempts to comment on a number of issues, and I’m not entirely how well it does so, but it certainly does so in an intricate manner – on the nature of companionship, violence, sexuality, and freedom. There is no moralising to be done, but the final scene gives you more than an indication of how things have changed – and how they really haven’t.