Inching progressively further down the rabbit hole of degradation, Michael Glawogger's Whores' Glory offers a revealing, troubling look into a trio of environments of prostitution. Moving from the veneer of classiness that characterizes a meat-market-style Bangkok brothel through the narrow hallways and economic desperation of the Dhaka, Bangladesh pleasure quarters to a rural Mexican open-air market, Glawogger's documentary triptych posits a fixed world of the basest economic exchange, where the filmmaker's camera locks down the characters in shots whose frequent rigidity mirrors the lack of social (or physical) mobility of the prostitutes he profiles.
Returning to the approach, at once observational and overly aestheticized, that characterized his celebrated 2005 doc Workingman's Death, Whores' Glory is as troubling and as troubled as it is devastating in its limpidity. The whole thing's a study in matching (or contrasting) form and content, a push-pull between distance and involvement. In the opening segment, taking place at the Bangkok brothel, irresistibly neon-lit overhead street shots alternate with scenes of the women lining up behind a glass partition while johns on the other side call them out by their assigned number. Glawogger's camera doesn't quite duplicate the gaze of the men making their selection (he turns his apparatus on the customers as frequently as he does the women), but there's still something vaguely queasy about the dumb proximity with which the director brings us in contact with the sordid transaction.
Given the rigid efficiency with which the Thai brothel operates, Glawogger crafts this segment with an airtight structure that takes in the cyclical nature of the women's lives. Granted a measure of economic freedom and social mobility lacking in their Bangladeshi and Mexican counterparts, the Thai prostitutes are free to speculate on possible prospects for their careers and social lives and to spend their money on things other than basic necessities. In a scene late in the opening segment, the women visit a gigolo bar where they essentially flip the script on the men, this time serving as customers in the sex trade. But as the segment ends with them returning to work—their money spent—and lining up once more to be the chosen ones, the best these women seem capable of is breaking even in the eternal return world of monetary-sexual exchange.
If the Thai brothel runs according to strict order and the illusion of classiness and promise of social mobility, no such glamor or possibility adheres to the cramped quarters of the pleasure district in Dhaka. A constricting maze of narrow hallways in which dirt poor women entertain johns in filthy hovels, the Bangladeshi whorehouse is an environment of dire economic necessity and intense competition among the women for clients. (This last aspect is one it has in common with the Thai establishment.) As Glawogger tempers his seemingly objective stance with a handful of interview segments, we learn of the sickening circumstances of the prostitutes' lives. In one heartrending scene, a pair of early teenage girls reveals the number of men they've already slept with on the day of the filming and characterize these clients' behavior in a range from the polite to the vile.
One of the more problematic aspects of Glawogger's film is that he seems as interested in the aesthetics of global prostitution as he is in the lives of the women involved therein. A skillful technician, Glawogger lights the dingy Dhaka hallways in such a way as to emphasize the bright colors of cloths and garments. He makes obvious moral points by conspicuously panning from a shot of a young prostitute to a baby sleeping on the floor of the hallway. And he structures the Bangladeshi segment in a deliberately loose manner (especially compared to the tautness of Thai sequence) reflecting the relative chaos of this particular site of prostitution. Making his directorial hand felt in his aesthetic choices (why, one wonders, is PJ Harvey playing over shots of destitute Bangladeshi hookers?) and his decision to directly interview both the prostitutes and their clients, Glawogger alternates uncomfortable observation with questionable shows of auteurist presence. It's not always an easy mix, but the director generally manages to capture enough richness of detail to justify the project's more problematic moments.
The biggest aesthetic shock Glawogger conjures up is in the transition from the second segment to the third. As a wipe shuttles away the Bangladeshi darkness for the bright airiness of a small Mexican town, the visual exchange is bracing—and relieving, given the claustrophobia of the Dhaka scenes. But all this light and air turns out to be the background to the most despairing of the segments. While the Mexican prostitutes may possess slightly more mobility than their Bangladeshi counterparts and they seem to play a slightly less passive role with their clients, the degradation suffered by these women is made clear in the frequent sequences in which Glawogger's camera rides shotgun in the cars of cruising men. As these horndogs drive past the doors of the various rooms where the women wait outside, they describe the acts they hope to perform in particularly vicious terms.
Although the women in the Mexican sequence possess something of a vitality lacking from the Bangladeshi prostitutes (one retired hooker memorably catalogues the various olfactory offenses of her former clients), they seem, if anything, more trapped in their situations by the remote location of their operation. One prostitute explains how recruiters come to cities and virtually abduct young women into the life. As such, Glawogger saves his most troubling moments for this final segment, particularly a pair of concluding scenes that both suggest the two aspects of these women's lives and the two sides of the director's approach.
In the first of these scenes, Glawogger abjures the more distanced strategy that characterizes much of the rest of the film and, in taking us into a woman's room to observe the sex act for the first time, employs a handheld camera pressed close to the fornicating couple which uncomfortably reminds us of the filmmaker's direct involvement in the lives of his subjects and the possibility of his presence influencing the action. As we watch in itchy intimacy the man pumping away at the woman, the camera makes the director's proximity (and our own) all too conspicuously felt.
The final scene, by contrast, in which two prostitutes, one of them naked from the waist down, relax in a room and smoke crack, is filmed with the fixed-take rigor that Pedro Costa brought to similar material in his classic film In Vanda's Room. Glawogger keeps his camera at as great a distance as possible in such cramped quarters and the result is a scene of desperation, one that sees two women groping at some sort of human connection only to lose it in a haze of crack smoke. The active world of fucking gives way to its only alternative, the relatively passive chasing of oblivion, and Glawogger's camera treats each scene accordingly.
Finally, a mention should be made of the role religion plays in the film. Religious rituals and iconography factor in all three segments, but serve a very different purpose in each. In the Thai sequence, prayer is an all but empty practice, one which the women use to petition God, half-seriously at best, for more clients. Muslim law provides a much stricter set of guidelines to the prostitutes in the second segment, as it forbids them from performing certain potentially lucrative sexual practices (such as giving blowjobs). In the Mexican segment, several of the women practice a sort of folk religion that seems to blend indigenous elements with Catholicism. These prostitutes pray to a goddess of death, a ritual that helps them both situate their lives in some kind of higher order and habituate themselves to the transitory nature of existence. Whatever role religion may play as an undercurrent in global prostitution, however, it does little to change the hard economic reality of the sex trade. Glawogger is no sentimentalist and, even when allowing the women their due in interview segments or in gussying up their bleak environments with pleasing lighting and framing, the director understands that prostitution is little more than the nasty business of debasing one's body in exchange for that most necessary of international resources, ready currency.
Film Comment Selects 2012 runs from February 17--March 1.