The Austrian director Michael Glawogger begins “Whores’ Glory,” his documentary triptych about prostitution, with a quotation from Emily Dickinson: “God is indeed a jealous God —/ He cannot bear to see/ That we had rather not with Him/ But with each other play.”
Perhaps it’s more relevant to begin with economics than poetry. Fifty-seven dollars will buy you two hours with one of the women who work at the Fishtank, a Vegas-slick Bangkok bordello. Its name derives from the plate-glass window behind which employees sit while prospective customers eye them and decide whose services they want. At the City of Joy, which is basically an alleyway, in Faridpur, Bangladesh, the going rate is $2.40, though we see one john bargain the price down to 60 cents. For streetwalkers who work the neighborhood known as the Zone, in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, the starting price is 100 pesos (about $7.21).
Glawogger has made two previous documentaries about globalization, “Megacities” and “Workingman’s Death.” Although one very basic universal urge unites what we see going on in Bangkok, Faridpur, and Reynosa, how prostitution differs in each place is striking.
The women at the Fishtank punch in on a time clock and are provided with stylists. Most of the women interviewed — there’s no narration; the only voices we hear belong to the women, their handlers, and johns — are relatively cheerful about their occupation. “At work it’s over in 30 minutes or a couple of hours,” one shrugs. “At home they never leave you alone!”
The sense of desperation in Faridpur is palpable. “I’ll be right back,” a young woman tells her john. “I’m going to get a condom from my mother.” Her words would be hilarious if they weren’t heartbreaking. Later we see her mother styling her hair. “Your face is the prettiest on the whole floor,” she tells her. “You will earn well in the future, God willing.”
God, or at least religion, is a thread running throughout the film. It’s not just the mother’s comment or the Dickinson quote. There are Buddhist altars at the Fishtank. Several of the Reynosa streetwalkers refer to the White Lady of Death, a figure in Mexican folk religion, and have tattoos of her image. Religion is otherwise absent from the Zone, where cars and trucks and SUVs slowly prowl up and down the unpaved main street.
Glawogger has the good sense mostly to stay out of the way and let the material speak for itself. When he strives for something more, sometimes it works (a tracking shot of the prospective johns seated in a row on the other side of the Fishtank’s window is majestically damning) and sometimes it doesn’t (a not-so-brief, and definitely not-so-subtle, shot of dogs coupling in Bangkok; a couple of camera views shot through a peephole). Some of the scenes almost seem staged, the participants are so oblivious to the camera. The one time we see one of the women engage in sex with a john is unnervingly explicit — but even more unnerving for the sense of complicity it indicates between viewer and participants.
Nothing, though, is as unnerving as the matter-of-fact comment of one of the prostitutes at the House of Joy. “Why cry?,” the young woman says. “I’ve cried enough for a lifetime.” Woman? She’s a girl, perhaps as young as 13.