Review: Maison Close: Season One (Blu-ray)

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Title: Maison Close: Season One
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: February 10, 2015
Studio: Music Box Films
Original MSRP: $39.95 (Blu-ray) / $34.95 (DVD)
Number of Discs: 2
Language: French
Subtitles: English
MPAA Rating: NR
Maison Close: Season One is also available on DVD.
The Blu-ray version was used for this review.
A copy of this Blu-ray was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy.

Editor’s Note:
As the Blu-ray released we received word from the publisher that the first episode is currently available for free to Vudu members at this link. While the full season is available for $22.99 (HD/HDX) and $14.99 (SD) and individual episodes are priced at $2.99 (HD/HDX) and $1.99 (SD).

Audio Review:
The audio review for this Blu-ray is available on Episode 410 of the podcast.

Story:
Set in 1871 just after the end of the Paris Commune, a short lived and bloody worker’s revolution, Maison Close is focused mainly on the women of a Parisian brothel known as Paradise.

Let me get this out of the way right up front, you may expect a ton of nudity and hard-core sex but if you go in just looking for that you’ll be disappointed. While Maison Close does have nudity and sex it’s not very prevalent and it’s actually somewhat tame compared to just about any HBO original series. Really, the driving force here is the drama and in that respect it excels.

At first it seems like it’s all about how the women of the brothel are trapped, working to pay off a debt they’ll never fully erase. Much like a mining town in nineteenth century America, everything costs money. Food, clothes, medicine, anything and everything needed to survive is provided solely by the house at whatever rates they decide upon ensuring that the women will always stay in debt.

… the drama began to unfold in unexpected and incredibly interesting ways …
What you learn over the course of the season however is that even the people who appear to hold power (both the women and the men) aren’t always free and clear. They’re also beholden to the people above them who hold even more power. It’s a hard life for everyone, clearly harder for some more than others, but nobody is as secure in their position as they seem.

Even more interesting is the conscious effort to not make this a straight period piece. Rather than turn it into a stodgy Downton Abbey affair, they’ve borrowed styles, makeup, and music from the more modern era. It’s not so much that it takes you out of the moment (except maybe the music at times), but it does give the whole affair a much fresher feel and it works in its favor.

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This is a time when prostitution is legal and the Paradise is known as the best in the business, frequented by businessmen, generals, and other members of high society. During the Paris Commune this was the only brothel to keep its doors open – due to protection of course.

But that protection came at a high price and there are people willing to do all sorts of horrifying things to get the money owed to them. We also learn within the first two episodes how new women are brought to the brothel and just how shockingly easy it is for one to become ensnared and turned into a sex slave.

Honestly, after the first episode I couldn’t believe how utterly depressing it all was. It wasn’t what I expected for sure but in sticking with it the drama began to unfold in unexpected and incredibly interesting ways. The depth of the characters and their stories really hooked me and made me burn right through the full eight hours of the season quicker than I expected to.

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The cast is strong and well chosen for their roles. Every single character, from the background people to the primary leads, is played in a way that really makes you believe in who and where they are. It’s really fantastic acting all around with the main players stealing the show.

Valérie Karsenti is Hortense, the mistress of the Paradise who’s under pressure from all angles. Anne Charrier is Vera, star of the house nearing the end of her usefulness at 35. She’s looking for a way out and hoping that one of her best clients, Le baron du Plessis (Quentin Baillot) will be able to buy her freedom and let her live out her days in comfort. Jemima West plays Rose, the naive girl from the country looking for her mother who might be a maid at the Paradise.

… when shocking acts of brutality happen you’ll be put right in the middle …

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are lighthearted and even genuinely funny moments to be found sprinkled throughout the season but those tend to make the sudden brutality that much more shocking. The tone of a scene can shift in the blink of an eye and it’s impressive how well it’s all executed by the cast and crew dragging you right into the moment.


Video:
Maison Close was shot with an intentionally hazy look, giving the video an old quality to it. Colors are generally muted except to make a point. The set and costume designs are fantastic with a wonderful attention to detail throughout.

Even the updated hair, makeup, and clothing choices are subtle enough to complement the proceedings rather than distract from them. Natural or very low lighting is used to give it all a real nineteenth century feel and it really works. The Blu-ray transfer is fantastic handling even the dimmest lighting situations with no hint of banding or crushing in the blacks.

… the mix of the old and the new …
The choices for camera angles are equally impressive showing the impersonal or intimate nature of the business at the Paradise depending on the client and the girl. Even when shocking acts of brutality happen you’ll be put right in the middle, made to feel the weight of the attack or pulled back and forced to listen behind closed doors.

Each choice feels right to convey the tone and gravity of the scenes in question. Rose speaking to the police is one of the best examples of camera, lighting, and set direction coming together to make you feel what the character is going through and it’s terrifying.

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Audio:
If you have a problem with subtitles you probably won’t like this set. It’s an entirely French production from Canal+ and the only option is English subtitles. The translation is excellent for the most part but I did notice here and there that the English was just giving a sense of what was said rather than a literal translation though it’s nothing that would take away from the story for English-only speakers.

The dialogue comes across crisp and clear throughout the presentation. Ambient sounds in and out of the brothel give the sense of a city that’s alive. What really threw me off was the music. There’s period music playing but every now and then a more modern song with guitars and such will creep in. It’s a bit jarring but it’s certainly been done before in period pieces.

It does continue the mix of the old and the new and that works to a point. What really messes with you is that the scene will change to another room in the brothel and you’ll still hear the music but it’s muffled as if it’s actually playing somewhere else in the house. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and those few scenes where it happened pulled me out of the story.

… the entire cycle of legalized prostitution in nineteenth century Paris …

Bonus Features:
While disc two contains a Season 2 Teaser Trailer that runs just over a minute, the real extras here are in the form of a sixteen page booklet in the slipcase which contains the following:

  • Brief passages detailing the genesis of the series
  • An interview with the director, Mabrouk El Mechri
  • A brief history of the period explaining how legalized prostitution came about and how it worked
  • A glossary of terms used in the show
  • An episode listing with a brief synopsis of each
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Conclusion:
A mix of old and new throughout with a focus on the three main women of the house, the mistress, the veteran nearing the end, and the new girl, Maison Close shows the entire cycle of legalized prostitution in nineteenth century Paris through the eyes of these three women. The show captures the political intrigue of the period along with the dramatic maneuverings of the characters with aplomb.

I was worried after the first episode at how depressing it all seemed and believe me, it is depressing, but as you learn more about the characters and their motivations the drama of it all sinks its hooks in and doesn’t let go.

Score:
9.0

* All screenshots used in this review were provided by the publisher.

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