Directed by Amy Waddel
2008—96 Minutes/Widescreen
DVD Provided by Vanguard Cinema
Review by Heather Drain

Bauhaus really it best with the line “the passion of lovers is for death.” Love, sex and death are elements that have haunted many a soul, even literally, which happens to be the case for Julianne (Serena Scott Thomas) in 2008's erotic ghost tone poem BROTHEL. Haunted by the suicide of her husband Brian (Whip Hubley), she ends up buying a building that he was obsessed with before he shuffled off this mortal coil. The structure in question is a beautiful but rundown old house in the small town of Jerome, Arizona. Said building functioned as a successful brothel around the turn of the century when the town was still swarming with woman-starved miners.

With plans of turning the building into a bed and breakfast, Julianne quickly starts on some much needed renovations, arousing the interest of a cute but slightly odd kaleidoscope (?!) purveyor, Avery (Brett Cullen). But Avery is the least of her experiences there, as her presence starts awakening ghosts of the past, with the leader of the flesh peddling pack being Madame Sadie (the always solid-as-a-rock Grace Zabriskie). Turns out that Sadie and her core group of ladies of the night are restless and bored with being dead. Dying a senseless and violent death doesn't help matters, so it is up to Julianne to try to right the sins of both her past and the history of her new roommates. The crux is can she really change the violent, troubled end of the girls AND the death of her husband? Even more importantly, can she successfully go wholly back into the land of the living?

From all outer appearances, this looks like a half-breed of indie-art-film and erotic drama. Not unlike something that would have played on (sk)Cinemax back in the day right before their umpteenth airing of BEDROOM EYES 2. In fact, if you only watched the first 10 minutes, then you would feel 110% correct in that assertion. But a deceptively standard love scene between Julianne and Brian takes on a strange tone when she notices the lost look in his eyes mid-coitus. It is that moment that pops up again and again throughout, taking it from initially odd to emotionally bent. This film is ultimately less about the big sexy and more about the loss and pain you feel when you are the one that gets left behind. Picking up the pieces is the hardest part of grief and that is fully evidenced here.

Less examined but certainly not less prominent is Grace Zabriskie as the charismatic and cultured Madame. Getting someone of her caliber to be in the film is a great coup. The rest of the cast are all good, but Zabriskie has that undeniable “it” factor that plays so well with a character who is, despite being a smart ass and an upscale female pimp in the middle of the desert, never anything less than a lady. In short, Grace Zabriskie rocks. Not to short change anyone, since this is basically Serena Scott Thomas's show, with her Julianne being the total heart of the film. She gives a fine, understated performance, fitting her character quite well. Julianne is a business owner who doesn't flinch at the site of random ghosts, so big showy hysterics would be pretty ridiculous. Her lean build coupled with her strong facial features physically works well too, giving the image of someone highly fragile who will yet still survive when it all falls down.

The absolutely strongest feature of BROTHEL is without a doubt the lighting and visual composition. This production is proof that with the right colors plus attention to detail and lighting, you can have a damn good looking film with not a whole lot going in the coffers area. The tech crew is the real star here. There's some lovely visual juxtaposition going on between shots of the beige desert and the jewel tones of Julianne's memories and spectral interactions.

Something that could potentially hurt this film is that between the title and some of the promotion, many people will assume that they are getting a straight up erotic film. Now sex is definitely a big element here, but it is often more an endemic symptom of a character's situation than straight up lurid goodness. In other words, if you are looking for something with lots of well lit dirty hula action, then you're better hunting through the Just Jaeckin mines. Another issue is that some of ghost back stories beg to be revealed more than they are. It helps that all of the girls here are well suited to being upstaged by someone else's more peacock-like life/death experience. The Madame Sadie character is a perfect example of this.

The DVD has a good bounty of extras, including a behind-the-scenes featurette, a trailer, and a very informative interview with Ms. Zabriskie. You even get a peek into her work as a visual artist while she works on some of her sculptures. It's a must for anyone who is a fan. At the beginning of the DVD, there are also some trailers for other films being released by Vanguard. At the end of the day, BROTHEL is an interesting little film that is thoughtful and velveteen in its appearance.