The third film in Michael Glawogger’s “globalization trilogy,” Whores’ Glory picks up where 2005’s Workingman’s Death left off, delving into capsular case studies as part of a larger exploration of the modern nature of work. Here the Austrian director’s focus is the world’s oldest profession, a vocation which provides the opportunity for dual insight into both the traditional nature of labor and the insidious effects of self-commodification. The unnamed prostitutes Glawogger follows, whether installed in a fancy Bangkok bubble or a dilapidated Mexican motel, perform roughly the same task, but the way their environs inform their work speaks volumes about both the varying of global economies and how different cultures deal with sex.
In Bangkok, where the women stop at Buddhist shrines on their morning commute, paid sex seems entirely integrated into the culture, which results in sumptuously decorated clubs accepting credit card payments. In Bangladesh it’s a family business, with a loud, labyrinthine brothel staffed by a wide net of relatives. In Mexico, a country with more than its share of Catholic guilt, its pushed all the way to the fringes; Glawogger plants his crew in La Zona, a nightmare wasteland somewhere in Reynosa, where lewd gangs of men troll the muddy streets in SUVs. These three scenarios come together to form a unified statement, one that’s less an advocacy of regulated prostitution than a reminder that sex is an essential element of life, and thus an indispensable factor in any economic market. It’s a stance that unites prostitution with the raw materials at the core of Workingman’s Death, a service so in demand that someone will always be willing to take the dirty job of providing it to others.
Like much of Glawogger’s previous work, Whores’ Glory is lensed by the talented Wolfgang Thaler, who amps up the surrealism and horror of these scenes with a pronounced stylistic bent, drawing out colors and deepening shadows. Nothing here really beats the stunningly shot opening scene, where sex workers cavort in a glass box suspended over a busy street, hassling passersby with laser pointers, circumstances that highlight the film’s focus on dual-sided opportunism. This segues into the film’s best segment, a surreal incursion into a Bangkok club, the Fishbowl, where the women spend their days relaxing in a glass room, wearing blue or red buttons to indicate their prices, hoping to be chosen by eager johns. Interviews with customers suggest that the transaction isn’t as clear-cut as it seems (“We are the commodity,” one man states, a reminder that the value of any resource depends on both supply and demand).
The film takes up this question of commodities as its primary concern, and the events that result can be as perfectly aligned with its themes as any fictional rendering. The penultimate scene of the first segment, which finds three of the women in a liaison with three male gigolos at a different bar, sharing stories and shop talk, seems almost too perfect to be true. Neither group of prostitutes wants to give away their services for free; both sets want a break from the stress of being selected like a cut of meat, so they form a momentary alliance, each paying the other for their services.
It’s scenes like this that reveal that Whores’ Glory isn’t really about the women themselves, but the funhouse world of modern-day capitalism, where every bit of human interaction can seem like a transaction. This broadening of scope recalls that of Workingman’s Death, which wasn’t about the stylized misery of foreign workers as much as the troubling relocation of basic production industries, with undesirable occupations outsourced to the lowest bidder.
If Glawogger had remained impassively committed to this concept, the movie might have worked magnificently. But there are problems, many rooted in the fact that the two latter sections are less baroque and interesting and more frankly disturbing. Surprisingly, the moments that call the film’s methods into question are the very ones where he tries to get to know his subjects—to see them more as just cogs in the system. These often feel exploitative and facile, less concerned with really exploring these women than playing up their dire circumstances, while conveying the impression of valuing them as people.
So we get mostly distracting scenes with the Mexican workers, showing them smoking crack and obsessing over Santa Muerte, who they pray will give them a sweet release from their difficult lives. Other times Glawogger simply loses focus. A scene of canine group sex outside one of the brothels, intended to convey the animal necessity of the acts portrayed here, seems puerile and insulting, a winking nod to how base all of this is.
While the director does make overtures in the wrong directions, he usually seems to know where to steer his material. The downward arc of these stories, from the cushy Thai bordello to the horror of La Zona, might feel far more emotionally exploitative were it not matched conceptually by some strong subtextual commentary. As shown clearly in each segment, the bodies of these women are depreciating resources; once they get too old to work, they may not be good for anything. There’s also the eventual realization that the crew’s efforts in profiling this trade involve them on a deeper level (that getting some of this footage undoubtedly required more than simple documentation), a fact that implicates the filmmakers as a silent third party in the transactions they’re capturing. The eventual capturing of the 300 pesos’ worth of sex live on camera raises the inevitable question of who in this scene is being paid, and for what.
Such tricky scenes work because they’re not focused on humanizing or explaining their subjects, a well-worn tactic that would ultimately be less useful, and far less illuminating, than the macro-level examination in which Glawogger engages. Whores’ Glory is vital not because of its human-interest stories, but because of the things it tells us about the transfer of resources from one party to another, how we sell ourselves and buy the same from others, even if we’re not doing so in a physical sense. Like the director’s best work, it’s an acute portrait the shifting status of traditional markets in an ever-changing world.