It had to happen.
With so many gritty, sex-filled dramas on cable TV and with prostitutes taking center stage in such series as “Deadwood,” you knew that eventually there’d be a melodrama set entirely in a brothel. I just didn’t expect it to come from France—although it makes perfect sense, if you think about it, since the first record of prostitutes in Western society comes from 13th-century Marseilles.
“Maison close” is a French TV series from Canal+, the production company that helped bankroll the 2011 Bertrand Bonello film about prostitutes in the “House of Tolerance.” The series is set in the year 1871, when, at the start of the Third Republic, France is still in transition. But it’s business as usual at the exclusvie brothel Le Paradis, which is patronized by generals, bluebloods, and the Parisian ruling class.
But the brothel may as well be called Amistad, since the prostitutes who work there have been forced or somehow bamboozled into working at the world’s oldest profession. The series revolves around the lives of three women. The newest member of the house is Rose (Jemima West), a virgin engaged to be married who goes to Le Paradis in search of her mother, but finds herself a captive there, forced to serve the customers. As she tries to deal with her situation, she continues to seek out information about her mother. Then there’s Véra (Anne Charrier), who is the Paradis’ star attraction, partly because she goes both ways. She expected to leave the house after a wealthy baron said he wanted to marry her, but the madam, Hortense (Valerié Karsenti), whom she sometimes pleasures, decides not to let her leave. There are other “girls” as well, and a talented cast includes Catherine Hosmalin, Clémence Bretécher, Deborah Grall, Blandine Bellavoir, and Elsa Catarina.
For a show set in a brothel there’s surprisingly little nudity. It’s almost as if the French made this one with U.S. audiences and HBO standards in mind. There are sexual situations, of course, but mostly “Maison close” feels like a pretty standard melodrama—that is, an adult soap opera. Plots drive the action rather than characters, and there are more emotional twists than a Twizzle. It’s not a fast-paced series, and the title of one essay inside a bonus booklet sums it up: “Maison close” is a modern series, in costume that takes place at a time when French society seemed resigned to the existence of prostitution and tried to regulate it. We’re told that rules were established which prohibit the prostitutes from: “traveling in groups, going outside without a hat, attracting looks, causing provocations, speaking to men accompanied by women or children, standing on the public road, being on the street before 7 or after 11, frequenting public establishments, coming closer than twenty meters to churches, or approaching schools and lyceums.”
The year before this series is set, there were 3,656 registered prostitutes in Paris, 1,066 of which were kept in houses like the Paradis. Health regulations and sanitary measures were starting to evolve, and visits by the doctor in this series reflects the initial awkwardness felt by all, we suspect. The girls’ lives were regulated and regimented in other ways, too, so that they became as isolated and dependent on each other for their own social order as pirates on a ship.
“Maison close” does a good job of capturing all that, but in the end it’s still melodrama, and you’re going to have to appreciate that genre to enjoy this series.
Eight episodes are presented on two discs. “Maison close” is not rated, but with nudity and language and adult situations it would merit an R, without a doubt. Total runtime is 440 minutes.
“Maison close” is presented in 16×9 widescreen and with enough of a hint of grain to add a touch of aging, to suggest another era, and grittiness compatible with the subject matter. Colors or rich but subdued by atmospheric lighting in many instances, while full-on garish in others. And the level of detail is what you’d expect from a hi-def disc.
The featured audio is a French DTS-HD MA 5.1, with English subtitles. It’s a dialogue-driven series, so the rear speakers are mostly used for ambient sounds. Directionality is decent, and while the bass doesn’t pulsate as much as the customers in this brothel it’s still a subtle presence.
A full-color collector’s booklet is included, which features production notes, photos, and interviews that are geared mostly to helping viewers understand the history and context of prostitution in 1870s Paris.
It may take a while for viewers to get “into” this show, because it has a curiously nondescript feel to it, despite the content and costumes. But once you become more involved in the prostitutes’ situations, it’s easy to lose yourself in “Maison close.”