What’s your favourite needle drop in a movie? For me, of late, I’ve been thinking on the anachronous use of The Moody Blues’ love paean ‘Nights in White Satin’ which appears midway through Bertrand Bonello’s laconic chamber piece House of Tolerance from 2011.
A crepuscular viewing experience, House of Tolerance charts the encounters, routines and malaise occurring in a Parisian bordello at the turn of the 20th century (populated by an impressive and varied cast that includes future Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Adèle Haenel). Candle and lamplight evoke a rich sense of perpetual gloom akin to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s similarly liminal Flowers of Shanghai. The set décor is exquisite. The costumes ravishing. Bonello paces his piece as though the viewer is within the foggy cloud of an opioid dream. Each element precise and redolent of the intended era.
The source music choices, however, push against this sense of insular completism. Bonello selects from mid-20th century folk and rock recordings. It ought to grate or bristle against the other formal aspects, creating a tonal imbalance or ‘does not compute’ response… but it doesn’t. We recognise that the choices are out of step with the setting, but – in a manner not dissimilar to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, say – we also understand that the songs chosen have been applied to the piece to underscore or evoke a particular feeling.
Coppola uses post-punk outfits like Gang of Four or The Strokes to apply a sense of puckish teenage rebellion to her movie. Bonello uses his set of artists to evoke a kind of emotional ache; expressive releases that his characters want to make, but which they often can’t or won’t for fear of reprisal or unseemliness. Externally – in front of paying customers – they are stoic. Inside they are screaming to us.
Never is this clearer than when The Moody Blues’ baroque pop classic is dropped in the aftermath of a death in this tight-knit sorority. The women slow-dance together, waltzing and crying, biting their own knuckles to avoid calling out. And in this reverie we’re reminded of Madeleine (Alice Barnole), a Jewish sex worker at the prestigious establishment who has been brutally disfigured by a client. With a straight-razor in her mouth, her john slashed open her cheeks, fixing her with a permanent rictus grin; imagery inspired by Paul Leni’s 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. We witness the distressing aftermath of this event near the film’s beginning. We think we are over ‘the worst of it’ when, cruelly, Bonello snaps the timeline back and we’re invited into the moment of bloodletting. It is genuinely shocking, especially as House of Tolerance spends so much time itemising/demystifying the profession as banal and humdrum.
That’s not entirely true. Even before the first instance of violence, sound is pivotal in making us feel uneasy. In an act of play to amuse a variety of clients, the women of the bordello run their fingers around the rims of their champagne flutes, creating a panoply of eerie sustained notes. An air of disquiet lingers around this sound, ushering in the horror. Bonello is keenly aware of the power of sound and music, as he will show us time and again.
Over an hour later we’re ‘treated’ to this vivid return to violence – a narrative PTSD flashback – eschewed in by The Moody Blues and the emotion ‘Nights in White Satin’ unleashes. The power of the song is overwhelming as Bonello presents us the women reeling from their recent loss, entwined with the memory of the violence perpetrated against Madeleine. What we’re witness to is communal shock and grieving that mirrors and accentuates our own.
‘Nights in White Satin’ is a song that yearns. Justin Hayward declares over and over, “How I love you”. And though the song was written with his then-girlfriend in mind, it has become a torch-bearer for unrequited or unspoken love, such is the power of Hayward’s insistent voice. Set against the action in House of Tolerance it speaks for the silent weeping of the women. It is as if they are singing it, both for their lost comrade, for Madeleine, and for themselves. Hayward’s declarations retooled as cries for self-preservation. Veiled, Madeleine has become a spectre in their midst. A living ghost. It is as though she had died, too. The sense of intense grief is real.
Pretext is maintained so much of the time in House of Tolerance. The illusion of allure. The sustained aura of pleasure. The women are exquisite, learned actors (see how Haenel’s Léa also performs strikingly as a doll for a client). The death allows a vivid interruption of this façade. It is an opening. A tidal wave. And the song playing is everything.
The music of The Moody Blues seems desirous of another time and place (they released an album called Days of Future Passed). The title ‘Nights in White Satin’ could even be taken as a kind of play on words, tilting toward the age of knights and chivalry, of round tables and ladies in lakes. ‘Nights in White Satin’ is a song from a modern era that feels as though it is reaching out to an older one. Just as Bonello’s film is a contemporary piece that stretches out to evoke a specific time and place lost by more than a century.
The song is also, rather pointedly, repetitious (a key line of dialogue, repeated, is “never reaching the end”), mirroring the unchanging lives of these sex workers almost always witnessed within the walls of the bordello. Indeed, while the film features on-screen text advising us of months and years, only a few events allow us a sense of before and after. Much of the rest feels suspended, like the lives it catalogues. Outside of time. Outside of society. Never evolving or escaping. It’s also a song that feels ornate, mirroring the opulence of the high-end interiors we can’t find a way out of. It fits perfectly.
And now – for me at least – the song is tied forever to these images and the emotions that swirl in them. The best needle drops in film achieve this and become inseparable. Inseparable like House of Tolerance and The Moody Blues.