I think we’re always responsible for our actions. We’re free. I raise my hand—I’m responsible. I turn my head to the right—I’m responsible. I’m unhappy—I’m responsible. I smoke a cigarette—I’m responsible. I shut my eyes—I’m responsible. I forget that I’m responsible, but I am… Men are men. And life… is life.
—Nana in Vivre Sa Vie
In 1962, Jean-Luc Godard exploded the film scene with Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live), a collection of 12 scenes, or vignettes, following a woman named Nana, played by Godard’s lover Anna Karina. An out-of-luck salesgirl, she turns to prostitution after leaving her husband, and the scenes question the power we have over our own fate, and our own freedom.
The sex-for-hire trade (or time-for-hire, as in the case of escorts) has had no better place for discussion than in film: what we are reluctant to talk about with neighbors, friends, politicians and clergy finds almost a safe home on the screen. This is largely because the writers, director and actors humanize the lives lived by women in the world’s oldest profession, making them much more than just statistics and harder to judge.
In Godard’s film, we see an aspect of prostitution that we aren’t quick to jump to today but can still see in our American society.
Nana is quite beautiful—smooth skin, lean, with dark bobbed hair and dramatic features. She and the women of the business dress respectably; she walks down the street in tailored clothes, heels, and a thick, lush jacket, her dark eyes taking in women standing on the sidewalks looking the same, waiting for their next John. Godard shoots these scenes in either bursts of sound and sweeping motions or in near silence: we only hear Nana’s heels clicking on the Parisian sidewalks as we watch her eyes dart from side to side.
Despite her cool, coifed demeanor, there is a horrible sadness in those expressive eyes. And a listlessness that draws men looking for company. They, too, are clean and respectable looking, in pressed pants and suits, with styled hair and cigarette holders. Their wallets are full, and they know how these things work.
It’s almost heart-wrenching to watch the moments that Nana is “in the act”. The business of her trade is just that—business. She rarely sets a certain fee and seems to just take what is given to her. She quickly learns the pains that come along with being her “manager’s” favorite. And (spoiler alert!) she meets a tragic end (an accidental one, promise, not a “being punished for her sins” thing).
But we get glimpses of the potential of this woman in her brief moments of pensive thought and happiness. She weighs out the choices of her actions, without judgment on herself: this is life, this is what she’s done with it, and only she is responsible, so why gripe? Now and then her smile radiates and she just enjoys, whether she’s spending time with a man in modern escort-style or when seducing men as if she actually cares about the game of innocent seduction.
It’s when we see her at work—taking money from a man that she then lets all over her but will not kiss—that the romantic lights of Paris, the groomed hair and philosophical coffee shops disappear.
Paris was also the backdrop for the theatrically romantic musical Moulin Rouge. Unlike its dramatic predecessor, we see a heroine that knows exactly what she’s doing from the beginning by utilizing escorting deliberately to get herself further in her dreams.
Nichole Kidman’s Satine wants to be a “real actress”. Set in the end of the 19th century, Satine’s Paris is a Mecca of bohemian artists, all trying to discover what “love” is and, along with that, the true meaning of life. Satine is a courtesan at the Moulin Rouge — the breathtakingly gorgeous singer and dancer who spends time with men in true escort-style to keep up the patronage of the joint as well as knows when to really invest in her future by letting one thing lead to another.
Times were tight financially then, as now, and artists suffered poorly while certain men got rich. Satine knew that she had to bridge that gap—for herself and the bohemian she was in love with—or risk living in poverty forever. She used her profession with confidence and control to get what she wanted, until she learned, ultimately, that love was indeed worth more than her financial goals.
A third take on the prostitution trade was handed to us with Pretty Woman: that of the “pulled herself up by her bootstraps” story. It pretty much goes without introduction that this Julia Roberts flick is considered a romantic comedy classic with a good heart and fulfilling ending. Though this wasn’t the first time we saw the Eliza Doolittle character with her knickers down on film, it was the first to so blatantly take on the street-trade in LA and then wrap it up in a happy ending.
Vivian is a good old country girl swept to the coast with promises of success only to find herself out on her luck and mesmerized by the glamour of the prostitution trade. We don’t see her so far gone to make the setup really uncomfortable or too real for our liking—she alludes to crackheads and pimps but they never make it on camera—and as soon as she flashes her pearly whites at Richard Gere we know it’s going to turn out alright.
In a simple Cinderella story (blatantly called such by her prostitute friend Kit), we learn more and more about Vivian and fall in love with her right alongside Gere’s Edward Lewis. Vivian comes from a good family and misses her grandfather out east. She longs to go back to school and make something of herself. She has a sense of humor and charm that bring all, no matter financial stature or education, to her side. Like Nana, she can’t kiss on the mouth, because that would mean something more than just business. And when offered an arrangement that would take her off the streets and give her some sort of stability, she decides she either wants the full boat of love or will continue on alone to make it herself.
Prostitution and escorting abound in dozens of films—from the 1932 flick Shanghai Express staring Marlene Dietrich to Barbara Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat. And, for the most part, the prostitute or escort is the heroine, the one we’re rooting for and sympathize with.
So why this compassionate view on film that we don’t see in contemporary media? When a call-girl meets her unfortunate end at the hands of a psychopathic John or a series of arrests are made in which the prostitute gets charged and not the man who solicited her, it’s usually with a really judgmental eye in the media and by the law.
Maybe it’s because only in film to we give the story the time it deserves to really show the people involved? Maybe we need Julia Roberts, Nichole Kidman and Anna Karina to gloss the picture over for us so that it’s just not too real. Maybe it’s because only in the safety of a dark theatre or our living rooms are we truly honest about all the goods, bads, rights, wrongs, blacks, whites and grays surrounding the prostitution and escorting trades.
It’s time for a documentary.