They loll about in their lingerie, young ladies waiting for clients to enter the opulent foyer of the brothel L'Apollonide; it's 1899, and such French "houses of tolerance" are scattered throughout Paris. Some prostitutes cater to certain peccadilloes, from "doll acts" to the colonialist kink of sleeping with an Algerian like Samira (The Secret of the Grain's Herzi) or, as the Dreyfus affair looms in the background, a "Jewess" like Madeline (Barnole). Others stick to the straight-and-narrow shtup. As the women's bad luck turns to worse---syphilis, opium addiction, a most unfortunate encounter with a knife-wielding john---the fate of this establishment seems bleak. Time and social tides will eventually wash away these comparatively reputable centers of carnal commerce.
Given the plentiful voluptuous flesh on display, it won't surprise many that French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello is best known on these shores for a 2001 film called The Pornographer. But for all of his male-gaze imagery, the writer-director is more interested in exploring the solidarity of this sorority; his sympathies lie with these young women, detailing their daily rituals with an anthropologist's eye. The fin de sicle realism, however, often takes a backseat to Bonello's catch-all stylistics, from anachronistic music (you'll never hear "Nights in White Satin" the same way again) to the overripe arthouse lushness of the cinematography. The result is erratic, occasionally WTF hilarious (three words: revenge by panther!), and in its transgressive tracks-of-my-tears climax, capable of finding pleasure in being bat-shit crazy.
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