Anyone seeking cheap thrills and vicarious kicks from this costume drama set in the confines of a Parisian brothel will be sadly disappointed by Bertrand Bonello's over-lengthy and contrived concoction. There is plenty of nudity, as you might predict from the maker of The Pornographer, but it is deliberately joyless and cruel. It may work for those of a patient disposition, intrigued by an inside look at the white slave trade in a turn of the century brothel. Its Cannes Film Festival exposure competition also should boost its chances.
The message, if there is one in this visually sumptuous exposé of the world's oldest profession, would seem to be that "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," or the more things change the more they stay the same.
The women slaving in this house of ill repute are trapped in a world from which there is no escape, despite their efforts to pay off their ever-mounting debts. Their individual stories are interwoven throughout the film as they meet well-bred clientele with whom to do "commerce." Interestingly, they find the work is easier and better paid than their previous jobs as seamstresses or laundresses.
One of the main threads concerns Madeleine, played by newcomer Alice Barnole, who is known initially as The Jew. When a gentleman caller cuts her face with a knife, leaving her with scars that suggest a permanent smile, she earns a new nickname: The Woman Who Laughs. She is relegated to performing menial tasks but her scars appeal to some tastes and she finds herself hired for an evening of debauchery.
Others in the group include a sultry looking Algerian (Hafsia Herzi) and a fresh-faced ingénue called Pauline (Iliana Zabeth).
They are constantly faced with the threat of syphilis and pregnancy, despite suffering the indignities of the regular medical inspections insisted on by the Madame (Noémie Lvovsky). The house is run to the highest of standards and the Madame even keeps her children living upstairs.
The film takes place in the era just before houses were closed and the girls moved onto the streets. Bonello references this in the closing shots of contemporary prostitutes hanging out at a motorway junction into Paris, ladies who are certainly less well dressed than their fin de siècle sisters.
The film's structure makes certain elements feel repetitive, and ultimately, at more than two hours running time, it feels overly long and indulgent.
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Cast: Noémie Lvovsky, Hafsia Herzi, Céline Sallette, Jasmine Trinca
Director/Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello
Producers: Kristina Larsen, Bertrand Bonello
Running time: 125 min.
Release date: Unset