Whores' Glory: Venice Film Review

This fascinating documentary examining the current state of the world’s oldest profession succeeds within the narrow limitations imposed by its subject.

A documentary from Austrian director Michael Glawogger on three brothels around the world is a non-exploitative eye-opener.

Acclaimed Austrian director Michael Glawogger returns to non-fiction filmmaking after a six-year gap with Whores’ Glory. Whereas his last documentary was entitled Working Man’s Death, this one might have been called Working Girl’s Life. Taking a selective, predictably unsalacious, unerotic and humanistic approach to the vast and complex subject of prostitution, Glawogger and his high-caliber collaborators come up with a movie that will disappoint only those looking for cheap titillation -- explicit nudity is featured only in the final reel -- but will enlighten anyone seeking better to understand what is famously a universal and timeless occupation.

A near-automatic choice for documentary festivals thanks to Glawogger’s solid reputation, the inevitably adults-only content and attention-catching title might propel the doc into art-house distribution in receptive territories before what is likely to be a healthy afterlife on TV and DVD. 

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Announced in the opening titles as a "Triptych" – and the religious connotations of that artistic term are no accident – Whores’ Glory itself completes a trilogy about working conditions in developing nations, which began with Megacities (1998), still the director’s best-known picture, and continued with the superb Working Man’s Death. Whereas male labor was the dominant focus of the first two parts, the emphasis is now squarely on the distaff as we watch prostitutes (as they’re referred to in the subtitles here, instead of the more modern term “sex worker”) go about their daily business and talk about their experiences.

All of the “girls” work indoors rather than soliciting on the street, although the conditions in the three establishments featured, in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico, vary greatly in terms of atmosphere, space, noise, technology and modernity. As depicted here, bordello life is sometimes hard (“I’ve cried enough for a lifetime”) but by no means unendurable, so there will be viewers who may criticize Glawogger for presenting a slightly sanitized, upbeat portrait of an industry that features no shortage of exploitation and misery.

It goes without saying that Glawogger could only have gained access to those relatively “respectable” premises which were happy to have his crew inside their doors so savvy audiences will know to take everything they see and hear in this particular film with some degree of skepticism.

That said, Glawogger’s sensitive and patient approach does yield plausibly candid interviews, some unexpectedly moving: “Men don’t realize how we sacrifice our sense of shame for money,” say one working girl.

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As a technical package, the movie is top-notch. Glawogger once again teaming with editor Monika Willi – a frequent Michael Haneke collaborator, here trimming what must have been a mass of footage down to a manageable, engaging two hours. Glawogger’s regular cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler conveys the atmospheres of the whorehouses without fuss while revelling in the gaudy neon of Bangkok, the crumbling shadows of Faridpur and the religious decorations of Reynosa. Matters of faith and belief are an occasional running sub-theme here, in a work which eschews narration or exposition: There’s nothing, for example, about the legal status of prostitution in each country and very little about the financial realities of this life.

Glawogger’s approach is a steady, formally quite old-fashioned one, with only the fleeting split-screen passing for a visual flourish. His only creative misstep is a slight over-reliance on English language and female-vocal rock and pop songs from the raucously sensual likes of CocoRosie and P J Harvey. Such accompaniments serves to distance us slightly from the vibrant, varied cultures depicted. We should ideally feel like privileged visitors, temporarily immersed in these unfamiliar worlds rather than tourists voyeuristically peering at the exotic flora and fauna.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production companies: Lotus Film, Quintefilm, ZDF
Director/screenwriter: Michael Glawogger
Producers: Erich Lackner, Tommy Pridnig, Peter Wirthensohn, Mirjam Quinte, Pepe Danquart
Director of photography: Wolfgang Thaler
Music: Pappik & Regener
Editor: Monika Willi
Sales: The Match Factory, Cologne
No rating, 118 minutes