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‘Whore’ (NC-17)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 08, 1991

It's called "Whore" and the rating is NC-17, so the easily offended know to stay away from this movie in droves. For those made of sterner stuff, there's a vital, bracing surprise. "Whore" is a deglamorized, surrealistic portrait of prostitution. It's hard-hitting, rather than hard-core. It's deadly serious on one level. Yet, by its own peculiar standards, it's also fun.

It's also a Ken Russell film. Anything goes. Anything does. This is the guy who gave you "The Devils," "The Lair of the White Worm," "Gothic" and a host of other in-your-face anti-classics. His movies are delirious frolics through the forbidden jungles of All That Is Unmentionable. Russell's signature atmosphere continues in this movie, but its implications are less than exuberant.

Waiting for business, hooker Theresa Russell talks directly to the camera. This extended conversation with the audience continues throughout the movie. Initially, the device looks doomed. Russell sounds as if she's still working on her accent -- whatever it's supposed to be. She seems too prissy for the role, embarrassed to talk dirty. But she's such a tenacious actress, her personality pulls her through. Her just-off-the-mark performance, intentional or not, grows on you. Or maybe you just get used to it.

Russell's life is a grim one. She never knows when her next client will be her last. At one point, a nervous boy in a van invites her in. She's grabbed by hidden passengers and group-raped. Most dangerous of all is pimp Benjamin Mouton, a psychotic harpie who constantly screeches up in his sports car, grabs her earnings and beats her for good measure. In a better mood, he takes her to the tattoo parlor. He gives pain even when he's treating.

"Whore" is wedged firmly between the theaters of absurd and cruelty. Humor interrupts brutality -- which then interrupts it back. "Tricks!" Russell says, after the rape episode. "They're so unpredictable." She says this with the subdued peeve of a waitress who has been stiffed her tip.

The humor is, mercifully, plentiful. One customer hands her a slip of paper that she has to read over and over again. "You naughty boy Johnny," it begins. "You dirty little boy. Mommy's very, very angry with you." While she reads this, the fellow slobbers hungrily on the toe of her shoe. Then there's the old fella who likes nothing better than a good whacking. When a stroke sends him to the rest home, it doesn't cut his ardor. Russell steals in for the odd, freebie visit.

"OK, he's in a rest home now," she reasons aloud. "Don't mean he have to rest."

There's a dreamlike, anti-romantic mood to everything. The sex business is almost allegorically banal. The clients drive by. They talk price. She gets in, or they drive away. What they want, she has found out, isn't about romance. It isn't even about sex.

"Something must have happened to make them like that," she says. "They feel humiliated so they want to humiliate someone back. They don't even want sex. It's more like revenge."

Revenge is available to everyone, it turns out. For once, Russell gets to benefit from it. The ending, as you might imagine, is no glorious affair. It solves her problems only temporarily. Get with it, this movie reminds "Pretty Woman" fans: There is no Richard Gere. Never was.

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