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Oldest Profession, The

Kino // Unrated // February 27, 2018
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 27, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Anthology films -- those that collect several short-film pieces into a single work, usually connected by some kind of theme -- are all a little different, but there's a common element involved in getting someone interested in pursuing most of ‘em. Once they've heard a familiar name of a director responsible for a segment, or an actor or actress appearing in one, they'll place it on their movie-watching radar and look forward to it solely based on their participation. Then, those interested will either develop passing interest in the other segments, or just tolerate the existence of the other elements while awaiting the appearance of their preferred director's part or performer's appearance. The Oldest Profession contains a scattering of noteworthy names for the lead female actresses throughout its multi-chapter journey into prostitution, but the biggest draw for cinephiles will be the participation of Jean-Luc Godard, who directed the final, futuristic chapter. Godard's stark black-and-white vision is a unique departure from the rest of the film's colorful, overstated, and unamusing glimpses at the world's oldest profession.

There are six segments in The Oldest Profession, which flow in chronological order as a sort of tapestry of how prostitution originated and took shape over the years. The first begins in the prehistoric era, which showcases how the indifference of a merchant and the power of color dyes transforms an innocent girl into the earliest form of a "lady of the night". This leads into a pair of historical pieces where the role of a prostitute has started to form into something recognizable, yet still vague by modern standards, first in the time of Caesar's Roman Empire and the next during the period of the French Revolution. Then, the chronology jumps to the late-1800s, to a point where the monetary exchanges for such services becomes how most view it today, and then falls into the film's present -- the '60s -- and how vice cops police their presence. Finally, the last piece throttles ahead into a chilly look at the future of prostitution, in which the pleasure of the flesh and intellect have become separated in the midst of intergalactic travel.

While the first segment, "Prehistoric Era", begins the film's journey with an origin of sorts for the line of work, it also gets The Oldest Profession off on an overly quirky and disingenuous note, to such an extent that the rest of the segments might've benefitted from this one being excluded altogether. With prehistoric women prancing around in bikinis, eggs being filled with colorful dye powders, and references being made to the layout of new "modern caves" through dialogue, Franco Indovina's segment paints an overly absurd portrait of how a young girl, Brit (Michele Mercier), transitions from an observant free-spirit who thrives off knowledge to a woman only interested in the pretty things that men will offer for time alone with her. Complete with intentionally extravagant makeup, she becomes a simplistic, caricaturist embodiment of the kind of person who engages in that activity, someone who's become uninterested in the substance or talents of others and only concerned with, well, jewels. Perhaps this would've worked had the prehistoric people been … y'know, prehistoric, instead of ruminating over love, art, and biology. Can't have it both ways.

Director Indovina starts things off on the wrong foot, and it's hard for the rest of the segments in The Oldest Profession to grasp onto genuineness after that, especially when held down by heavy dubbing throughout. Perhaps my expectations were misguided, but the hope was that each of these segments would take relatively commonplace scenarios in the lives of prostitutes in their given era and mildly twist them in comedic or satirical ways. Instead, to varying degrees, each one goes to extreme lengths to integrate the motivations, manipulations, and everyday activities of these women into their time periods, most of which lean toward absurdist tendencies in their representation of a prostitute's pursuit for wealth, brushes with trouble, and interconnections with men of importance. The most successful comes in "The Gay Nineties", the Raquel Welch-starring segment in which a stunning temptress works her charms on a wealthy banker, extending fantasy beyond their evening together. Welch is charming and disarming, to such a degree that the extravagance of her persuasive abilities can almost be forgiven.

Each of the first five segments of The Oldest Profession feature lively cinematography, warm colors, and undeniably levity in their tones -- and, surprisingly, no nudity -- which makes it all the more unusual to step into the austere world that French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard crafts with "Anticipation". In harsh monochrome tones and with repetitive voiceover taking the form of monitors announcing the current radioactive state of the atmosphere, the director reveals what "the oldest profession" might look like in a future with commonplace space travel, alien visitors, and the separation of physical and verbal/emotional pleasure. Perhaps expectedly, Godard's installment deviates from the rest in several key areas, both in its candor with a physical representation of its respective scenario and a deeper, underlying message about the link between bodily satisfaction and expressive sensuality. "Anticipation" makes The Oldest Profession worth putting up with for how profoundly it deviates from the joviality that came beforehand, though, with this provocative climax ultimately wrapping things up as a bizarrely incohesive viewing experience.

Video and Audio:

Each of the segments in The Oldest Profession has slightly different appearances in terms of lighting, depth of image, and punches of color, but after seeing the final one from Jean-Luc Godard, it's easier to lump ‘em into two categories: Hollywood-like vivaciousness and sharp black-and-white austerity. Despite my issues with the first segment, it's hard to dispute the beauty present in the cinematography that Kino brings to life within, where the 1.66:1-framed shots of jutting rocks, prancing bodies in "prehistoric" bathing suits, and eggs cracking open to reveal bold colors are given immensely natural depth and robust palette representations. Conversely, the harsh grayscale photography of Jean-Luc Godard's segment exhibits sublime contrast balance, preserving shadows and elevating crisp details in airline jets, garments and hairstyles, and the dangling chains of a unique … collar. Film grain and texture is frequently natural, print damage is minimal, and fine elements in all sorts of textures -- makeup, masks, avant-garde hats, corsets, weathered furniture, and lace dresses -- are delicately preserved. Kino's done a great job of presenting this restoration of The Oldest Profession on Blu-ray.

The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track ends up being an obligatory afterthought to the visuals, a suitable but cumbersome representation of sound elements that already struggle with inherently blunt-sounding dialogue dubbing. Pounding drums, slamming doors, and atmospheric screeches in Godard's segment are overly heavy and distort at elevated levels, yet subtler and more restrained effects in footsteps, carriage rides, and knocking on doors is clear and balanced enough. The capturing of atmosphere in busy merchant areas, night clubs, and joyriding in a car through town really show the track's age, though, possessing thinness and harshness that drowns out the natural ambience of the surroundings. As does the dialogue itself: even though it's discernible throughout, the elevated nature of the recordings above the soundtrack roughly represent the smoothness of the actresses' -- and, sure, the actors' -- delivery, hitting coarseness at elevated volume levels. It's really not too bad considering the age, vintage, and obscurity of the film itself, but it's quite a step down from the visual transfer. The English subtitles are clearly presented and grammatically solid.

Special Features:

Outside of a Trailer (2:14, 16x9 HD), The only included extra comes in the US Cut for The Oldest Profession (1:33:31), which drops about ten minutes in footage and sports colored casts -- and inverted contrast! -- over the black-and-white cinematography during Anticipation, conveniently obscuring the only nudity present in the film.

Final Thoughts:

A multinational anthology film from the ‘60s centered on the chronology and development of prostitution triggers thoughts of comedic, thematic, and expressive potential, especially when considering the French New Wave and the soul-searching tempo of Italian cinema. For the most part, The Oldest Profession doesn't measure up to those anticipations, instead telegraphing five bluntly overstated glimpses at the origins and shenanigans involved with sex workers, then ending with compelling yet esoteric final chapter from Jean-Luc Godard that doesn't fit in at all with the rest. It's an unusual collection of short films, hinged on unrealistic levity yet offering little in the way of genuine laughs or abstract thought, where a collection of exaggerated scenarios throughout time are unevenly propped up by recognizable faces in the roles of the female prostitutes. Then, a stark black-and-white glimpse at the future bookends the rest, and while Godard's craftsmanship makes it worth pursuing, its immense temperamental deviation from the rest of the snippets makes it feel like it doesn't belong and, thus, impacts the rest of the project's cohesiveness. The visual transfer is great and the inclusion of both cuts will make the curious happy, but I can only recommend a Rental for a handful of performance highlights and Godard's final entry.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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