'Maison Close' Brings the Dark Side of 1870s Paris to Vivid Life

by J.C. Macek III

5 March 2015

Maison Close might not quite uplift you; but, then again, many of the best and most realistic series on television usually don’t.
 
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Maison Close: Season One

(Noé Productions / Canal Plus)
US DVD: 27 Jan 2015
UK DVD: 3 Sep 2012

Maison Close is one of a series of adult-oriented period dramas competing for award notice. You know the type: acclaimed programs like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey that are as likely to win an Emmy for costume and set design as they are for acting.

While the idea of a French (and French language) period piece concerning prostitutes in a brothel in the 1870s might give the impression of something bawdy, tawdry, and titillating for international audiences, this is hardly what we are given in Maison Close. While hardly “prudish” in its storytelling, Maison Close focuses much more on the drama and the dark side of the age-old profession that it depicts than the sexy or pornographic aspects that might be expected from such a program (particularly from France where censorship is much more lax in that area). By way of comparison, Game of Thrones features many more nudity and sex scenes than Maison Close does (at least in the first season).

Maison Close begins by focusing on Vera (Anne Charrier), a complex character who serves as a microcosm and even mirror for the Paradise Brothel on the whole. Vera, like the rest of the prostitutes in the ”lupanar” (as the show calls the house), owes a great deal of money to the maquasse (“madam”) of the brothel, and finds getting out from under this debt remarkably difficult. This is, of course, by design, as the organization is structured to keep these girls, essentially, as prisoners. The madam collects all of the money the girls earn and pays the girls only in “chips” which are only redeemable to the madam herself. As the working girls are rarely allowed to leave the house (and wouldn’t have actual francs to spend anyway), they are forced to purchase all of their needed goods from the madam at extremely inflated prices. Unless she manages to obtain gifts from wealthy customers the debt remains and grows: thus, once a prostitute, always a prostitute.

Vera finds herself at a strange precipice between hope and despair. On one hand, she is now 35 years of age and her days as a paid bedmate are numbered, while her (manufactured) debt continues to rise. Deepening the dark side of things, Vera has been chosen by her maquasse Hortense (Valérie Karsenti) to serve as her own lover. On the brighter side, Vera is banking on being rescued by the Baron du Plessis (Quentin Baillot), who has the means to settle her debt and the desire to have her for himself. For more reasons than one, Hortense would do just about anything to prevent this from happening.

Vera’s story focuses on the depressing final years of Parisian prostitution in 1871. The story of Rose (Jemima West) is that of a girl forced into the very beginning of her career as a prostitute and her tale is even sadder. Rose travels to Paris with her fiancé to find her mother. Inquiring at the Paradise, she runs afoul of Hortense, who sees an opportunity to replace Vera, the star attraction, with the very young Rose.

The makers of Maison Close are hardly one-sided in their storytelling. Hortense is certainly scheming, duplicitous and lecherous, but she is also proven to be a victim who is trapped in her own circumstances. Just as Vera and her coworkers are inescapably indebted to Hortense, the madam herself has tightened her grip in part because she is deeply in debt to a criminal named Lupin (Dan Herzberg) who has a variety of very lethal means of collecting debt. If this isn’t bad enough, Hortense has to face off with her despicable brother Pierre (Nicolas Briançon) for control of the brothel and the girls.

And this is only the setup.

The cruelty and apathy displayed by those in control is shown in all of its harsh darkness while the plight of the working girls is treated with sympathy, never prurient delight. While no one in this show is shown to exactly be “an angel”, at the same time the line between right and wrong is clearly drawn, even as many of the more cruel characters are shown to be just as desperate as the girls at the bottom of this flesh food chain.

This is not to say that Maison Close is nothing but a dark and depressing time, at least no more than dark adult dramas like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. There are moments of humor and positivity and each of the major characters is given a depth and interesting development. Even in the most difficult moments Maison Close is difficult to look away from. The acting is excellent and the situations are intriguing.

The set design and costuming is so amazing in conveying 1871 Paris that it hardly is noticed after the first episode, meaning it is so successful in bringing you into the world of the show that it simply seems normal. This realism extends to the storytelling. Each action is shown to have consequences, each relationship is shown to have ramifications, each liaison is memorable. Again, while this television show is hardly a ribald flesh fest, Maison Close is far from prudish. The same realism given to the writing, design, and even lighting of the show goes into the sex scenes. Yes, there is sex and nudity in every episode. No, these scenes are never treated like soft-core pornography. Many of these scenes are raw and violent and unpleasant, but director Mabrouk El Mechri does not shy away from these moments, as surely this is how things were. To his credit, each scene furthers the narrative value of the show, and none of them feel repetitive.

The main mark against Maison Close is that while the characters do evolve with the story, there is a certain sameness in the first season. Over and over there is hope for escape, release or at least a better life, and over and over this is quashed. By the time the eighth episode rolls around, the viewer might be forgiven for thinking “Well, what’s it going to be this week, and how is it going to fall through?”

The 2015 Music Box Films Blu-ray release is light on the on-disc special features (though the video and audio is excellent), but the booklet included contains a series of interesting articles and interviews, excellent photographs, historical contexts (such as explaining the brothel system in the Paris of 1871) and even a glossary of terms used in the show. All of these help further the understanding and depth of the show and prove to be a very good companion piece to the show itself.

It’s hard not to root for the women in this show and hope for a better life. Maison Close is a very good drama with well-developed characters, fine writing, directing, lighting and design. It might not quite “uplift” you, but many of the best and most realistic series on television usually don’t.

Maison Close: Season One

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