Welcome back to the Three Strike Rule, the column where your intrepid reviewer watches three episodes of a series and offers his opinion on it. This week I’m discussing Maison Close, a 2010 French drama set in a Paris brothel circa 1871. Season one has just been released on Blu-ray. During this era, prostitution was regulated, seen as a concession to the immorality of the large cities. “Kept girls,” i.e. the prostitutes, were listed, registered, and required by law to stay within the confines of their brothel, except under certain conditions. If they did leave their house, they had a particular rules, such as never going outside without a hat, not attracting looks, not speaking to men accompanied by women or children, and not standing on a public road. There were several more restricting laws, but the gist is that it was damn near impossible for the prostitutes to leave the brothel.
Maison Close takes place at the Paradise, a luxury brothel in the heart of the city. Hortense (Valerie Karsenti) is the mistress of the Paradise. She sets the rules and deal with the clients. As a middle-aged businesswoman in a man’s world, she’s struggling to make ends meet. She’s in debt with Lupin (Dan Herzberg) a scoundrel in a bowler hat and mutton chops, and the Paradise’s star attraction, Vera (Anne Charrier), is about to pay off the money she owes the house and leave to become the full-time mistress to a wealthy baron. Kept girls rack up bills for anything from the food to medical check-ups. For all intents and purposes, these women are trapped, unless they’re saved by a rich benefactor or until they are no longer considered attractive enough to have sex on dirty sheets.
When Vera leaves in episode one, business begins to wan. It looks as if Hortense will get into real trouble with Lupin. She simply doesn’t have the money to pay him. Making matters worse, Hortense is in love with Vera and suffers from a broken heart. Lupin issues an ultimatum and scars a young woman with acid to prove the seriousness of his threat. The end looks nigh for the Paradise. Then, in walks virginal young Rose (Jemima West), a street-smart blond in search of her long lost birth mother. Rose, who is engaged to be married, believes her mom resides in the Paradise, but she can’t gain entry, not without an escort. Her luck seems to change when a down-on-his-luck artist escorts her inside. However, he only has the intention of making a profit from Rose and he sells her to the brothel! When Rose tries to leave, she’s told she owes money; when she escapes to go to the police, the cops side with the brothel and threaten the life of her fiancé. To save him, Rose she agrees to return to the Paradise, believing she’ll still find a way out.
Episode two furthers the horror of the lives of Vera and Rose. The baron who paid off Vera’s debt is killed, sending her back to the world of prostitution. Meanwhile, Hortense schemes to repay Lupin by auctioning off Rose’s virginity to a room full of lascivious old men. When the young girl resists, she’s given the option to close at her eyes and endure, or suffer physical pain from being brutally raped. It’s actually rape no matter how you look at it, and Rose does her best to cope with being “ruined” for her fiancé.
By the third episode, Hortense’s brother, Pierre (Nicolas Briancon), returns to Paris with his wife. He hopes to gain respect and business in town because he’d made a fortune overseas. But he worries that the secret he keeps from his wife and his fellow businessmen (that his sister runs a brothel) is hurting his career plans. Hortense has issues with her brother, but she needs him; his cash flow will help keep the Paradise afloat. Moreover, his lavish gifts help break up a strike Vera organizes.
Maison Close is edgy, dark, and a little salacious, with modern dialogue and contemporary music. The latter is jarring when it occurs. The series is spoken in French. No worries if you have a hard time reading subtitles, though; the dialogue isn’t too complex to distract you from the action. Overall, I found the show to be entertaining. It’s a little more melodramatic than something you might expect on HBO or FX, but it’s well written and the female actors were all exceptional, especially West. Her transition from a woman on the verge of happiness to sheer hell is heartbreaking. The men, on the other hand, aren’t quite as impressive. Save for Briancon, the rest overact in most of their scenes. Still, after the first three episodes I was intrigued enough to keep watching.
The show is relatively light on T&A. That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of sex being enacted on the show; in fact there are quite a few sexual acts that’ll may open your eyes. But you’ll see more nudity in ten minutes of Game of Thrones than you will in the first three episodes of Maison Close. If that disappoints you, then you probably shouldn’t be watching the show. The first season of Maison Close on Blu-ray is distributed by Music Box films. This collection (8 episodes on 2 discs) includes a booklet that has historical background on 19th Century prostitution. There is information about Paris brothels, regulated prostitution, how the kept girls were remained healthy and relatively disease free, explanations on the hierarchy, the debt system, and a list of terms used on the show. I’ve never seen a more detailed booklet in an historical drama to help the viewer understand the politics and terminology of the era.