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Maison Close: Season 1
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Set in Paris in 1871, right after the suppression of la Commune, a workers' revolutionary movement that briefly took power, MAISON CLOSE follows a cast of gorgeous women trapped by circumstances beyond their control in the luxury brothel 'Paradise'. Considered a first class "closed house" reserved for aristocratic or bourgeois clientele and noted for strange and refined practices during a time when prostitution was legalized, Paradise is populated by a fascinating cast of characters, each of whom struggles to find escape and solace in their own way. Hortense (Valerie Karsenti), is the manipulative and, in turn, manipulated mistress of the Paradise who runs her business with iron hand; Vera(Anne Charrier), the star of the bordello, is a beautiful courtesan in her thirties whose career is nearing its end; and, Rose (Jemima West, Mortal Bones: The City of Instruments), the heroine, is a country ingenue raised by nuns who goes to the Paradise searching for her mother, only to be blackmailed into becoming a prostitute. Unfolding like a serialized 19th century French naturalist novel, this uncompromising series, produced by Jacques Ouaniche at Noe Productions International for Canal Plus+, is the perfect mix of style and substance, a richly compelling period drama with unmistakably modern sensibilities.
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This story set in the high end Parisian brothel Le Paradis, catering to the wealthy and governing elite, is a beautifully filmed period drama with a bit of a greyish-blue color scheme that highlights the blue slate roofs, stone alleys and cobblestone streets of 1871 Paris, France. However, it is not a pretty tale. That is not to say it is moralistic. Nor does it romanticize the lifestyle in any way. It simply presents a story in a dramatic yet somewhat realistic way (compared to other brothel tales) and allows the grit to form its own impression on the viewer. It can be gripping if you allow it time and savor the characters. Some just looking for a costume drama may find it a little slow and the subject coarse for their taste. However, let me explain a little more (without spoilers) and make the case for accepting this tale.
THE STORY: Paris 1871 just after the fall of the Second Empire and at the dawn of the Third Republic. France is finding itself morally and politically. Rose is an innocent young woman searching for her mother at Le Paradis brothel in Paris. She is engaged to be married, but has not revealed the whole situation to her fiancé. Outside Le Paradis one night, she enlists the help of a patron to gain entrance but is tricked into servitude at the brothel. Though she does not find her mother at first, she begins to investigate the mystery of her disappearance while coping with her forced prostitution. Vera is the star of the house, able to make any man (or woman) feel they are special in her arms. She is headed the opposite direction from Rose as she prepares to leave the house, having won the heart of a baron who will give her a wealthy, fairytale life. Hortence Caillac is the Madame of the house with a powerful brother Paul Caillac. Hortence happens to prefer women and has an obsession for the well experienced Vera. Their tempestuous relationship is challenged when Vera's good fortunes come to light. Hortence must find a way to keep Vera there anyway she can, both for love and financial success. As young Rose and Vera bond over personal misfortunes, Vera teaches Rose how to cope, and of the power she can wield over men. They will be a powerful duo before the season is over. There is some sort of dark secret between Hortence and her brother, with many revelations to be exhumed. Some political conflict is also in play between patrons as Paul seeks advancement to the highest levels of social standing and government, despite his connection to a house of ill repute.
This show is fantastic in its character development, production values, period dress, cinematography, and acting. All are really top notch. The greyish hue they filmed the program in was stunning, and causes the other more garish colors of the costumes and brothel to pop. As I mentioned though, this series is a little slow to develop and much of the drama early on just doesn't hit or grab as hard as it probably should. However, in the final episodes things are driven to the edge as Rose begins to discover her own sordid history involving her mother and as conflicts with Paul Caillac must be rectified. Those not up for a plodding drama may not make it to the end. It's kind of a drama about family too (not family oriented) as the girls are each other’s new family. For others who can sit through the excellent and meticulous story construction, there is ultimately reward. I'm not going to say the show is perfect, though I did appreciate it greatly by the finish. Jemima West as Rose makes both a wonderfully innocent ingénue and fiery force of nature later on. She is both dear and dangerous!
CONTENT: For a show set in a brothel, nudity is surprisingly not the focus. There is not that much - all considered. However, there are constant sexual situations and innuendo of a very graphic nature. It is NOT a genteel tale. Human trafficking is not romanticized in this program though there are elements as one might expect for a brothel tale. Take this description and decide for yourself if it's for you. It is an outstanding drama overall.
Taking place in Paris immediately following the Franco-Prussian War, the serial is steeped in the mores of the period, and it does well in transporting you into that world. The story is centered around a government-run bordello, or "maison close," named Paradis (while "le Paradis" is likely fictitious, the show's characters at times mention a rival brothel, "le Chabanais," which famously existed in Paris). The one exception to the immersive interpretation painted by Maison Close is its penchant for using contemporary music. This aspect may be a deal-breaker for some viewers, yet I am confident that despite being particularly jarring at first, if you give this peculiarity some time you may begin to see it as an inspired juxtaposition.
There is a fair amount of depth to the plot, and if you are paying attention to the subtitles instead of the subtleties, it's easy to miss the facial expressions and mannerisms that help to tell the story, e.g., why characters behave as they do towards one another. At times Maison Close resembles a sophisticated soap opera, yet I hesitate to use the term for a drama that provides a window into the past with such detail. This series could have been so bad, but the quality of the acting, the sets, and sometimes the dialogue ended up with me giving the season 5 stars.
While the adult nature of the premise ensures nudity, the sexual content here isn't more graphic than what is seen in a typical HBO drama. Speaking of HBO, Maison Close is on par with that level of programming (it aired on Canal+, a French premium cable TV channel).
It's distressing to watch how Rose (Jemima West) is forcibly inducted into the bordello; I imagine how this scenario could have happened given the circumstances in 1871, so I don't have any reason to doubt the portrayal by the screenwriters as anything but realistic for the period. While West's character isn't fleshed out (excuse the pun) this season, her role is more emphatic in season 2.
There isn't much room for humor in Maison Close, but they still manage to pull it off tastefully on random occasions. The most memorable example is a visiting Dr Lombardi who pokes and prods our heroines and then informs them of some conclusions from his research; the good doctor gets his just desserts after presenting his biased, half-baked findings.
Overall, this first season of 8 episodes is a forbidding yet addictive show to delve into. Despite murder, mayhem, and the unfortunate exploitation of prostitution, Maison Close doesn't leave you in a pool of misery after indulging in it.
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Maison Close gives us an un-sugarcoated, to the point of cringeworthy, depiction of life within a Parisian...Read more