French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s haunting and surreal House of Pleasures (L’Apollonide in France, House of Tolerance in the UK) depicts the final days of a fin de siecle Parisian brothel. As the prostitutes, who live, work, and put their bodies on the line within the brothel’s atmospheric confines, Bonello has assembled a cast which includes some of France’s best and most beautiful young actresses.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of the film’s stars, the very talented Alice Barnole. In the pivotal role of “Madeleine,” the young prostitute who, quite tragically, becomes “The Woman Who Laughs,” Ms. Barnole is unforgettable.
House of Pleasures premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May and went on to be nominated for the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc and eight Cesar Awards. Easily one of the best films of 2011, House of Pleasures was just released on dvd, this past Tuesday, March 13th. The film is currently available on Netflix.
Franklin Laviola: Is it true that L’Apollonide [House of Pleasures] is your first film? If so, how did you come to be cast in the film? What was director Bertrand Bonello’s casting and audition process like?
Alice Barnole: Yes, it’s true, it’s my first film. There must always be a first film and I’m very happy that it’s this one. At that time, and alongside my theater work, I was working on the development of a screenplay for a feature film, and I had heard Bertrand was looking for extras for his next film. So I met him and at the end of our conversation (he’s the only one who knows why), he asked me, if I wanted to try out. Of course, I said yes. It happened in his house, first without text, just with music. I believe that for Bertrand, who is also a composer, notes mean as much and sometimes mean more than dialogue. He likes to see how a character comes to life on a melody. And this is something that meant a lot to me.
FL: In L’Apollonide, you play Madeleine, a young prostitute, living/working in a high-end Parisian brothel at the turn of the 20th century. Did you do research into the lives of prostitutes from this era in preparation for your role? Were there any specific historical cases or works of art or literature, which inspired your character and performance?
AB: Yes, I researched the period and the historical context, but in a very broad way. And the same thing about prostitution. For Madeleine, I was really more interested in looking at stories of characters, who are physically wounded. For me, what was more important and interesting to play, was what went beyond the figure of the prostitute. She becomes a monster, isolated and lonely. And I was very passionate about this. I read (and saw) The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo, because Bertrand was directly inspired by that. But I also saw films, like Freaks by Tod Browning and The Ape Woman by Marco Ferreri … I looked at a lot of paintings — the works of Alfred Stevens showed me a lot about the time period and “ambience,” but I also looked at Toulouse Lautrec, Toulmouche, etc.
FL: The film’s opening scene is pivotal. Not only does it immediately set the tone and seductively draw the viewer in, but it introduces this ghostly nether-world of the brothel through your character Madeleine. It’s a very complex scene that requires a great deal of subtlety and vulnerability from you, before the horrific violence suddenly erupts. Was the scene difficult to shoot? How did you approach playing Madeleine, in the moments leading up to her disfigurement at the hands of a client?
AB: This can be explained in very few words. Madeleine is simply in love. A universal sickness. Anyway, that’s what I liked telling myself. And this for me justified best her fragility, the confession of her dream, and finally her letting go. This is also what could explain the dignity she shows after she is disfigured. It’s as if she completely assumed responsibility for the consequences of her irrational passion. FL: Throughout the film, other characters, including the brothel’s madam, refer to Madeleine as, “The Jewess.” What is the significance of her ethnic/religious background as a detail, within the context of this particular story and time period? While Bonello does not provide any additional information regarding Madeleine’s past and Jewish identity, did you feel compelled to invent your own backstory for the character?
AB: In reality, there was a “Jewess” in every brothel. But this had nothing to do with religion. This nickname was given to the girl, who had the blackest hair and the longest nose. This was a question of profile! Of course, there were a few girls, who were really Jewish, but this didn’t come from that. For Madeleine, I didn’t tell myself a story like that. I thought she had enough problems already … (I’m joking!!)
FL: How many hours each morning did it take to apply the prosthetics/makeup effects to your face? Was the heavy makeup difficult to work with?
AB: Two hours were needed every morning and there was a month of tests before the shoot. To be perfectly honest, it’s a true gift to play with such makeup. It alters your way of speaking, holding yourself, and being looked at by the other characters. The makeup was necessary for Madeleine’s inner transformation. There were a lot of difficulties — we were shooting in the summer and because of the heat, I spent most of my time in a completely isolated and air-conditioned room and therefore completely separated from my girlfriends. But, after all, this kind of isolation was what Madeleine experienced in the house, so it all made sense. And I haven’t even mentioned the protein-rich meals that I had to eat with a straw and the numerous visits to the dermatologist. Under the prosthetics, I was really disfigured by the reaction I had to the glue. But really I never complained and I do not regret anything.
AB: I think that she somehow becomes more mature. She has more time to think and to observe. And she also builds herself an armor that she didn’t have before. She isolates herself, but, at the same time, she becomes completely open to others. She doesn’t have a choice and she knows it. But she doesn’t want to be pitied.
FL: Which of her relationships, with the other girls, is the most important for Madeleine and why?
AB: Most certainly the one she has with “Caca,” who is going to suffer from syphilis. They share something that is irreversible. The consequences of a risky profession. They will both know isolation and they will see the instrument of their work, their bodies, damaged and degraded. They look at each other as women and not as prostitutes anymore.
FL: One of my favorite scenes of the film is your one-on-one exchange with Xavier Beauvois. Do you feel there’s a genuine mutual attraction between his character and yours?
AB: No. On the side of Xavier Beauvois’ character, it’s a morbid attraction, an unhealthy curiosity, a fascination for the monster and not the woman. And on Madeleine’s side, it’s an intimidating moment because it’s the first time she finds herself with a man, since her disfigurement. She feels desire, but she remains cautious. She has trouble understanding what he wants from her. The kiss is a real gift and she receives it most sincerely.
FL: Do you see Madeleine as a doomed character? Do you feel the film ends with a glimmer of hope or on a note of utter devastation? How might the viewer read her tears of semen?
AB: Yes, of course, somehow she is doomed. She is condemned to hide or condemned to be desired for her deformity. She is, inevitably, reduced to being “The Woman Who Laughs.” The tears of semen that she cries is a scene that gives the spectator the freedom of their own interpretation. We can see in that the relief of something that goes overboard, the accumulation of all the masculine pleasures she was the receptacle for, or the image of her own pleasure. But it could also be the image of the tears she never cried throughout the entire film. The sadness she repressed. It can be everything we want it to be. And I think that’s the power of this scene.
FL: L’Apollonide is a true ensemble film. Not only is there no one protagonist, but a palpable group dynamic emerges, between the brothel’s women. There’s both camaraderie and tension. How did Bonello achieve this effect with his cast? Was there a rehearsal period before the actual shoot? Was he open to improvisation during the shoot? Did the cast become friendly and hang out together on off days?
AB: No, everything was directed by Bertrand, there was no improvisation. But he had all of us meet before the beginning of the shoot and it created relationships between us and we got along very well. Really. It was incredible. Therefore, during the shoot, there was real friendship, it wasn’t faked. It was really sad to say goodbye at the end of the shoot. Today we still see each other, whenever we can.
FL: The film’s soundtrack is blatantly anachronistic. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and other bluesy American pop songs of the 1960s/70s are heard at key moments. Were these songs written into the screenplay or were they selected in post-production? If the former, were they played on the set to establish a mood for the actors?
AB: Bertrand had chosen all of the soundtrack way before and he had already composed some of the musical pieces. He had done something that was very good and useful — he had given us the entire soundtrack on cd, so we could listen to it before the shoot, so we could all have the same “music” in our minds. I thought this was really intelligent. Of course, music influences how we play, our attitude. Regarding “Nights in White Satin,” the scene, where Julie dies, he was blasting music onset. It wasn’t difficult to make us cry!
FL: Throughout L’Apollonide, there’s a copious amount of nudity and sex, but it’s handled in a way that never feels sensationalistic or exploitive of the actors or subject matter. As an actor how do you approach this aspect of a role? Had you ever done nudity before on stage or on camera?
AB: In this particular context, nudity made complete sense and Bertrand didn’t over-exploit it. The first scene we shot was the anteroom scene, where the girls are getting ready. We were all topless and this was really effective to put us in the mood. I had experience posing for photographers before. I had already done artistic nude pictures, so for me it wasn’t a problem. And again, this was about women, who work with their bodies, so one needed to be at ease with this idea.
FL: Last May, L’Apollonide screened “In Competition” at the Cannes Film Festival. Tell me about this experience. What was it like attending the world premiere and walking the red carpet with your fellow cast members? Did you get to see any of the other films that screened at the festival?
AB: It was crazy! A real whirlwind. First film, first red carpet for me! We all had a lot of fun. We didn’t have time to see other films. At the same time, we were there to defend our “baby.” We were really proud to be there and represent the film.
FL: How was the film received in France?
AB: Much better than expected. Really. The critics for the most part were really good, full of praise. People were really moved by the film. No one was indifferent. And that’s a good thing. The people, who disliked the film, really disliked it! But that’s the beauty of cinema.
FL: What do you hope viewers ultimately take away from the experience of viewing this film?
AB: I hope they were transported by the story, let themselves be rocked by the music, and bewitched by the atmosphere.
FL: What’s next for you, Alice? Do you have any new films in the works?
AB: I had very few offers since L’Apollonide. There’s a feature film scheduled for the fall. It’s a movie about wrestling in the 1960s! I’m really looking forward to that. I miss acting. Not acting makes me ill.
FL: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers? Which current filmmakers, whether from France, the USA, or anywhere else in the world, would you most like to work with in the future?
AB: The filmmakers I like the most are dead, unfortunately. I have a few idols, like Stephen Daldry, Robinson Savary, Bertolucci, Todd Haynes … And, of course, I forget some … But I dream of shooting with the maximum number of people and be exposed to completely different universes and in every country!
FL: Thank you very much, Alice. And congratulations on the film and your brilliant performance!
This interview was translated from the French by Doris Mirescu. We thank her greatly for her time and effort.
Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer, based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He most recently discussed the 2012 Academy Awards (see his Oscar predictions and what should have been nominated).