This seamier side of Paris inspired many painters, photographers, scriptwriters and movie directors-well into the 20th century. The combination of wild nightlife, loose morals and naïve girls is documented by artists of various media. My imagination was particularly stimulated by the movie portrayals of the scene. Flipping through the miasma of words and images in my memory brings to mind Baz Luhrmann‘s intense, staccato-paced visuals in his films such as “Moulin Rouge.”
I vividly recall when I was six years old my father and a buddy took me with them to the cinema. The film was “Can-Can“, starring Frank Sinatra, Louis Jourdain, Maurice Chevalier and Shirley MacLaine. My mother found it quite disturbing that they had exposed me to this story at my tender age. In retrospect it brings to mind the words of Cole Porter: “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked at as something shocking”…The sight of petticoats may have been illegal in the Paris of 1896, but none of us guys found anything scandalous about the subject matter.
In the mid-sixties I was more than a little shocked and intrigued by the sight of Paris’s “ladies of the night” lurking in doorways of Les Halles-some of them definitely worse for the wear. Perhaps smoking, often wearing a motley fur coat and fishnets. It was all much sleazier than the fluffy depiction of prostitution in “Irma la Douce”, the 1963 movie set in Paris with the ubiquitous Shirley MacLaine as the proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold”.
Another iconic portrayal of the flesh trade in French cinematic history was“Belle du Jour”, the 1967 movie by director Luis Buñuel starring Catherine Deneuve. It shows a considerably darker, twisted version of this underworld, complete with a procuress who brings to mind the famous Madame Claude.
Flash forward to 2013 and the global transformation is evident: a walk up the rue St. Denis is certainly an eye-opener. Tradition is honored in the garish get-ups with as much leg and cleavage on display as possible. Judging from the mannequins in shop windows, many of the boutiques appear to cater to the trade. The area between the Porte St. Denis and the Porte St. Martin is particularly thick with predominantly Asian women. It may be “the world’s oldest profession”, but this demi-monde of girls offering their wares is definitely alive and well in Paris.