Divisive upon its release at Cannes and Toronto, I find House of Tolerance to be visually captivating like most of its admirers. As for its detractors who find it exploitative and misogynist, I have to disagree. Clearly the film uses the female form (the setting is a brothel after all) but I never find it exploitative and Bonello does take enough time to show these characters' interactions with one another and even sympathizes with their state. It becomes not just about the lush visuals but a examination of these women and the economic and social system changing around them. The film allows these women to express their hopes and wishes outside of the sexualized setting. It acknowledges that these women are in a hopeless position, perpetually in debt to their madam (this notion of having a client pay off their debts is a one of the recurring hopes) and looking at a system of commerce moving from the relative bourgeoisie safety of the house to the danger and disease of the streets. It's not exactly a feminist viewpoint, but it does allow sympathy for these women to come through, as well as showing them as a tight-knit sisterhood that deeply care for one another.
Aside from the visuals, Bonello uses some anachronistic flourishes that work surprisingly well within the film's structure. One is the story of Madeline, The Jewess (Alice Barnole), who's disfiguration at the hands of a client becomes a recurring scene throughout the film. Besides highlighting the way the sex trade is evolving towards a more dangerous vein, it also shows how this community works. Madeline is never thrown out of the house but given chores to do behind the scenes. She is still accepted within the community and it is her story that makes this more than just flesh. Another is the use of music, especially The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin", which plays as a pivotal moment later in the film and surprisingly expresses the mood of the scene and not the temporal distance. Finally, there is the final scene in the film, where the stylized visuals and comfort of the house are replaced with a current Parisian street, filmed in low budget video, as another prostitute emerges from a car to take her place with the others on the street. It's a symbolic end, not just culturally but formally as well.