What is it with the French and prostitution? Ever since the 19th Century (and perhaps before) Gallic art has had an odd preoccupation with ladies of the night, from Manet’s painting Olympia and Emile Zola’s novel Nana, through movies like Belle de Jour. And just in the last year there’s been the Juliette Binoche starrer Elles, as well as House Of Tolerance, which is set in a similar milieu as the TV series Maison Close.
The series charts the lives of the workers and owners in an upscale Parisian bordello called ‘Paradise’ in the 1870s. Over the eight episodes the lives, desires and tribulations of the women are uncovered. Some feel utterly trapped and degraded by the lives they’re pretty much forced to live (if they don’t please the men they risk being sold to a cheap flophouse), while others seem happier with the money and sense of empowerment they have in a male dominated society.
This is particularly true of the house’s madam, Hortense, who is outwardly independent and able to live with her female lover, even if she has more financial problems and pressures than she initially lets on. The other two women the show concentrates on are Veris, who at 35 is nearing the end of her life as a prostitute and is hoping her main client, the Baron Du Plessis, will ensure her a comfortable post-bordello life, and young Rose, who comes to Paris looking for her mother but is forced to work at Paradise to pay off her debts.
Although I initially felt the series was setting itself up to somewhat glamorise prostitution, this is perhaps deliberate, to pull you in with sexy, relatively pleasant seeming shenanigans before revealing a more complex picture of these women’s lives. From women being burned with acid and violently raped, to the difficulty Hortense has with a thug who’s demanding money from her, there’s certainly plenty going on in the maison. It’s a well-made, acted and written series, filled with well-drawn characters whose stories are never less than intriguing.
It’s a slightly mixed bag on the lesbian front. It’s great to have a series anchored by a powerful, clever and well-rounded woman with a female lover, but there are other moments when the show reverts to the soft-core porn version of lesbianism. There’s one scene in particular which shows two women in bed while a man watches, while soft-rock plays in the background (Maison Close often uses contemporary music despite the 19th Century setting, which works incredibly well), and the whole thing is viewed through a soft lens. It’s all a bit cheap and unnecessary.
While the series has a lot of sex in it, the fact there’s a lot of female nudity and comparatively little male, as well as a more gratuitous use of lesbian situations than straight ones, is problematic. It sometimes feels like Maison Close is trying to have its cake and eat it, saying it’s about exploring the lives of women in a fairly feminist way, while also objectifying them. In fact, that essentially sums up the entire French art obsession with prostitution.
Even so, it’s still an entertaining show that keeps you hooked thanks to the strong writing and acting. It also looks superb, with opulent production design and lighting that’s really brought out by the well-mastered Blu-ray picture.
With all these European shows that have recently found success in the UK, including Maison Close, The Killing and Braquo, it can’t help but make you wonder how much great entertainment has been created by out near neighbours that we’ve completely ignored. It’s just a good job we’re finally getting some of it now.
Overall Verdict: A complex and sexy insight into a 19th Century bordello, giving an entertaining look into the lives of a strong group of female characters, even if it does sometimes slip into the gratuitous.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac