Bertrand Bonello's film offers a bleak, unyielding yet sumptuously beautiful view of prostitutes' lives in Belle Epoque Paris.
Set almost entirely within a well-appointed brothel, it is less a drama than an unfolding fresco describing the everyday routine of its inmates and the dangers of their trade – from disease, age, addiction, and the occasional savagery of the rich male clients. The grotesquely cut face of Madeleine (Alice Barnole), resembling Heath Ledger's Joker, haunts the mood through to the end. "This isn't a knocking shop," says the madam (Noémie Lvovsky), half-benign headmistress, half-jailer, looking after her girls but also loading them with debt to prevent their escape. She has her own problem: the rent is about to sky-rocket, and her vain appeal to an influential customer means the house will close. A day's outing to the country is the sole respite, with Josée Deshaies' exquisite cinematography nodding to the sunny uplift of Renoir, before returning to the gloomy interiors and wistful glances of Lautrec, Degas and Manet.
Bonello has an instinct for the telling detail, be it the sight of a pet panther curled on a green sofa, the corpse of a girl pocked with syphilitic scars, or a reference to the house's occupational smell ("Champagne and sperm"). He overeggs the music with anachronisms – what did we do to deserve "Nights in White Satin"? – and perhaps overstretches the languor at the expense of dramatic momentum. But there are images here that will burn long in the memory.