This striking mix of plush visuals, knife-edge drama and provocative ideas captures the daily routine of a Parisian brothel circa 1900. Our interest isn’t purely historical, however, since the interchange of sex, capital and labour is far from a thing of the past. Writer-director Bertrand Bonello uses incongruously modern music (gutsy vintage R ’n’ B, The Moody Blues!) and the odd time-shift cutaway for emphasis – but we’ve already taken the point. These girls have opted out of the privations of working-class toil for the maison close run by Noémie Lvovsky’s hard-but-fair Madame, where they’re sheltered, fed and dressed, but there’s another side to the bargain. Sisterly comradeship has its compensations, yet we’re left in no doubt as to the price of escaping the backstreets.
Negative responses to the film’s Cannes premiere last year cited a lack of drama and a certain narrative torpor. Judged in conventional terms you can see where those comments are coming from, yet Bonello’s trying to find a cinematic form to register what are in effect non-lives, since these women exist to be bought and sold, night after night. Hence it’s appropriate that we seem locked in the same turning circles. What draws the viewer in, though, is the way this highlights those fleeting moments in which the prostitutes’ humanity somehow finds its own space – like a picnic sequence, as lovely as a Manet canvas, where the nudity’s an innocent reclamation of their own beauty. Seductive on the surface, steely underneath, this is an angry, fascinating, highly political film all wrapped up in costumed frilliness.