House of Tolerance
This claustrophobic picture (aka L'Apollonide Souvenirs de la maison close) is a frank, unexploitative account of life in a smart Parisian brothel in 1899 and 1900. It demonstrates that la belle époque was less belle for the girls than for their wealthy clients, though better than walking the streets or working in a sweatshop. The film is superbly designed to suggest the oppressive, hypocritical haut-bourgeois decor, the obsessive eroticism that excludes real desire, and the languorous timelessness that makes one day like another. There is enough detail about money, cosmetics, hygiene, sexually transmitted diseases, theatrical deportment and authentic camaraderie to qualify the film as a kind of documentary. But a final coda offering a glimpse of whores in present-day Paris, waiting in the streets for passing motorists to pick them up, shows that plus ça change, plus c'est le même commerce. The movie's most startling image is of an abused, once beautiful prostitute who imagines her client's sperm turning into tears and flowing from her eyes.