“No woman dreams of entering this profession. But it is a real profession…”
In fact, it’s commonly referred to as “the world’s oldest profession.” We’re talking, of course, about practice prostitution. The profession also happens to be the focus of the soapy, serialized Maison Close, which is set in a 19th century Parisian brothel. And thanks to Music Box Films, Season 1 of the French prostitution drama is now making its U.S. Blu-ray debut.
“…and it is possible to do well at it and retain your self-respect.”
Maison Close — a French term for “brothel” — opens with a sweeping tour of the Paradise/Paradis in 1871 Paris. (Gliding camera movements and longer takes — courtesy of director Mabrouk El Mechri and cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard — are a staple of this eight-episode first season.) Paradise is the swankiest brothel in France’s most prominent city, so it attracts a rich and powerful clientele. That being said, the first season largely focuses on three women.
Vera (Anne Charrier) is 35 years old and Paradise’s charismatic, experienced top earner; Hortense (Valerie Karsenti) is Paradise’s madam, who runs the brothel with a stern eye on the bottom line — and another eye on Vera; Rosalie (Jemima West) is naïve and barely in her 20’s when she arrives at Paradise looking for her mother, who worked there long ago. By the end of the first episode, Rosalie’s name has been shortened to “Rose”, and she is cruelly saddled with a debt she has to work off at the brothel.
Rose’s predicament turns out to be emblematic of what Maison Close is really about. Obviously, the sex scenes — which are pretty much mandatory considering the subject matter — draw a lot of the attention, but the show is really an examination of power. More specifically, it’s about how these women had very little of it, and the varying ways they try to extricate themselves from the men who lord it over them. (More on that in just a bit, but since I know you’re curious…the sex scenes are plentiful — at least one in practically every episode — generally feature a surprisingly low amount of nudity, and are decidedly un-sexy. It’s a choice that makes sense, considering we’re seeing these women at work. Now back to our regularly scheduled review.)
Vera yearns to escape Paradise, but needs a rich suitor to pay off her debt. Even Hortense — who manages the brothel and is the person in charge by all accounts — is indebted to a scary thug named Lupin (Dan Herzberg, deliciously despicable) who helped keep Paradise running during turbulent times. (Season 1 is set shortly after the Franco-Prussian War.) Heck, Hortense doesn’t actually own Paradise; that would be her brother Pierre (Nicolas Briancon). Even characters who seem like decent enough guys — like charming painter Edgar (Lannick Gautry), or Rose’s fiancé Auguste (Christophe Fonseca) — turn out to either be useless, scumbags, or useless scumbags. The exception is the virginal Edmond Blondin (Garlan Le Martelot), who becomes smitten with vivacious prostitute Angele (Blandine Bellavoir).
Hortense and Vera make moves — both separately and together — to improve their standing, but their schemes become a bit stale and repetitive in their futility and complexity. That’s why the most compelling transformation of this first season belongs to Rose, who transitions from shell-shocked and powerless to conniving and in-charge by the time some bodies are buried in a nearby forest in the season finale. It’s a good thing too because even Rose’s search for her mother becomes redundant following dead end after dead end.
West (Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) is probably the most “recognizable” name in the cast, and she becomes convincingly commanding as the first season progresses. Charrier is more consistently good as Vera, who is supposed to be somewhat of a great actress herself. Vera has to be totally malleable and totally convincing, depending on what she needs. Karsenti is also very impressive as the formidable Hortense; in fact, the actress’s performance suggests a stronger character than the one we get on screen. (Take a shot every time somebody slaps Hortense, or pushes her against a wall.) Catherine Hosmalin plays Marguerite, the mother hen/ right-hand woman to Hortense at Paradise. The season hinted at some potentially juicy storylines involving the ambitious Marguerite, but pulled back too often.
It’s not totally fair to say the rest of Maison Close is a tease. The show absolutely delivers in terms of creating interesting characters and re-creating the time period. I just wish their stories had been told in a livelier, more propulsive way.
Maison Close: Season One is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 25 mpbs. This is as up-and-down of a visual presentation as I’ve seen in a while. The good news is the grain and ever-present noise — especially during scenes in the alley outside Paradise — actually suit the gritty material and setting quite well. The bad news is this doesn’t appear to be a totally intentional stylistic choice. Honestly, some of those darkened scenes look like they’re close to VHS quality. They’re jarring because Maison Close appears to have the means to do better. The pendulum swings back the other way during most scenes set inside Paradise, which highlight warm flesh tones along with the show’s sumptuous costumes and production design. There’s equally good detail and texture on display in scenes set in the more squalid parts of the brothel, namely the women’s living quarters. Black levels, on the other hand, are a little murky and tend to run together quite a bit.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 French track is often as opulent as the goings on inside Paradise. The score alternates between Gast Waltzing’s more operatic compositions and anachronistic rock and R&B songs in English. Either way, the music fills the entire surround sound field. The rears also boast dynamic ambient noises and directionality. Overall, there’s a nice separation between the dialogue (largely kept to the front) and everything else (taking up residence in the rears). Sub activity is negligible. There are English subtitles, but no English-language/dubbed track.
Nothing. Unless you count a Collector’s Booklet, which has insightful production notes, interviews, info about the show’s 19th century time period, and photos.
A couple of years ago, HBO snatched up remake rights to Maison Close. It makes sense, since the show could serve as a spiritual, historical cousin to network offerings like Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire. However, the project seems to have stalled.
Whether or not an American version pops up on our TV screen, the French original is worth a look, even if it doesn’t fully live up to its titillating potential.