Leave it to the French to turn tales of life in a 19th-century brothel into the brilliant and ever so binge-watchable drama that is Maison Close.
The world’s oldest profession is at the heart of Maison Close, but sex is only part of the story. For the prostitutes trapped in a Parisian bordello, there is little to none in the way of liberté, égalité, fraternité, despite three of them being dressed in the nationalism of the French flag’s bleu, blanc, rouge on the DVD cover.
Set in 1871, following the demise of the short-lived Communard government, Maison Close (which translates as “brothel”) centers on the lives of the women of le Paradis (the Paradise), a luxury brothel that caters to the sexual whims and fantasies of the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and others amongst Paris’ rich and powerful.
Thirty-five-year-old Véra (Anne Charrier, Ligne de Feu) knows all too well that her days as le bordel‘s most-sought-after sex worker are numbered, but so are her days at le Paradis. When we meet her in the opening scene, she is pleasuring the general, a regular, in this way and that, before breaking the news that he is her last client and this was their last romp. The Baron Du Plessis (Quentin Baillot, Flics) is paying off her debts to the house and whisking her off to his mansion, where she is to live in high style as his mistress.
For Hortense Gaillac (Valérie Karsenti, Scènes de Ménages), the cunning and ruthless maquasse (madam) of le Paradis, losing Véra is a double blow. Not only is Véra the star attraction at her establishment, she is now her soon-to-be ex-lover, and Hortense isn’t about to take the imminent departure of the love of her life and her financially-strapped business’ most valuable asset lying down.
Plotting must wait, though, as there are cash-in-hand clients to tend to, such as the powerful perv, Charles Blondin (Antoine Chappey, Détectives). It is time for his kind and naive son, Edmond (Garlan Le Martelot, Hard Time), to become a man, and Hortense has just the girl to initiate him: the warm-hearted and occasionally feisty Angèle (Blandine Bellavoir, Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie), whose debt to the house is great and whose love for petty criminal Brice Caboche (Serge Dupuy, Sparrowhawk) is greater.
Meanwhile, Hortense’s right-hand woman, Marguerite (Catherine Hosmalin, I’ve Loved You So Long), has found a new attraction for the Paradise. Not a substitute or replacement for Véra, but one that allows Hortense to make a singular offer to a select group of clients and rake in a one-time-only bundle of cash. Finally, a way for her to repay the vile and vicious Gaston Lupin (Dan Herzberg, Un Village Français) the money she borrowed to keep the brothel open during the Communards’ uprising, rule, and downfall.
Enter the chaste provincial, Rosalie Tranier (Jemima West, The Borgias), whose search for her mother brings her to Paris and the world of le Paradis. Once inside, though, she finds its doors have locked behind her. No thanks to the charming and no-longer-starving artist, Edgar (Lannick Gautry, Blood of the Vine), she has unwittingly accumulated a debt to the house, and is forced to work to pay it off. As Rose, the Paradise’s virgin belle du jour.
As the story unfolds with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll (yes), as well as a strike here, an off-screen contest there, and a word game with sex toys somewhere in between, we become party to the secrets, schemes, and crimes within and without the confines of the Paradise.
The strands in the densely-plotted, tightly-woven narrative carry us from being mere voyeurs to viewers with an investment. The connections we make with the characters stem from their being fleshed-out personages, each with her own distinct voice, plight, fears, and hard-learned lessons, rather than depictions of tired clichés, be they of tough-talking, hard-edged tarts, woeful members of society, or straight-up ****heads.
Not that they don’t ever act as such when the situation warrants, but that’s the thing. It’s all a matter of context. Especially for Hortense and Marguerite, where the line between their being good or bad, right or wrong, friend or fiend, is often blurred by circumstance. To some degree, this also extends to Pierre Gaillac (Nicolas Briançon, Spiral), the rich, smarmy (and utterly contemptible, as we discover later) brother of Hortense.
The sex scenes, while integral to the storyline, are incidental, not pivotal (with two exceptions). Titillation factor aside, they demonstrate the myriad ways in which the prostitutes work hard for the money to pay down their debt or gain some measure of influence over how their lives progress. That sex is shown less frequently than one might imagine speaks to series writer and creator Jacques Ouaniche’s focus on Maison Close being a substantive drama rather than eight hours of stylized porn.
Speaking of style, it is art and artifice. The sumptuous velvet and rich jewel tones of costumes and furnishings are juxtaposed against greyish walls with (symbolic) peeling paint, and belie the bleak existence of the brothel’s denizens. Even the seldom-seen streets of Paris are tinged in sepia and grey. (Read: Freedom from the Paradise isn’t pretty.)
Utterly brilliant is the use of music, which features prominently for setting the mood and in certain scenes serving as part of the action. For the latter, it’s as if the 19th-century brothel were outfitted with 21st-century Bluetooth speakers, so as to give aural pleasure alongside those of other senses. (In one scene, a pounding R&B piece blares in the dining room where nearly everyone has gathered for a bacchanal to bid adieu to Véra, while its sound is muffled behind the closed doors of Hortense’s upstairs office. Then it is instantly muted, seemingly by an invisible deejay who took his cue from the general’s signal.)
The first season of Maison Close, whose stay-tuned-for-more conclusion makes me wish the second were available in the States now, is every bit the intriguing, compelling, riveting series I hoped it would be, so much so that I binge-watched its eight episodes over two evenings. (If I could have done it in one, I would have.)
Maison Close is definitely worth checking out (binge-watching is optional). Season 1 is on DVD and Blu-ray, and available for streaming/download at Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube.