Jeanette Maier’s real-life misadventures have been so borderline incredible — she was busted by the FBI in 2001 for operating, with her mother, an upscale New Orleans bordello where she employed her daughter — that she already has inspired a sensationally titled TV movie (“The Madam’s Family: The Truth About the Canal Street Brothel,” which CBS aired on Halloween 2004. In “The Canal Street Madam,” documaker Cameron Yates pursues the story behind the story in a sympathetic account of Maier’s life and crimes. Theatrical prospects are iffy, but pic’s subject matter should generate fest and video interest.
Maier comes across as sassy, brassy and thoroughly unashamed of her checkered career in the oldest profession. Her hard features are only occasionally softened by her smile, and her bitter rants about the “hypocrisies” of the legal system — prostitutes are prosecuted, but their well-connected clients are untouched — may seem grindingly repetitious even to those who agree with everything she says. And yet, through sheer force of her self-mocking wit and outgoing personality, Maier, who turned 50 during the film’s production, somehow manages to generate and sustain a rooting interest.
Yates relies heavily (probably out of necessity) on amateurishly shot and often eye-straining homevideos to provide context and backstory — along with ineffably affecting glimpses of years-ago family gatherings — while tracing Maier’s personal history, from a childhood scarred by sexual abuse to her post-arrest campaign to encourage decriminalization of prostitution.
Pic becomes less of an effort to watch, and even more impactful on an emotional level, when Yates turns his own camera on his colorful subject. “Madam” follows Maier as she struggles to maintain ties with her children (in addition to her daughter, who evidently has left the family business, she has two adult sons with messy legal troubles) and tries, with mixed success, to exploit her notoriety.
A personal appearance in New York with shock jocks Opie & Anthony ends humiliatingly for Maier. But she clearly savors the attention during TV and radio interviews when sex scandals involving David Vitter (a Republican senator she claims was a former client of hers) and Elliott Spitzer are front-page news.
Even when Maier is distributing food and water to storm-battered New Orleaneans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “Canal Street Madam” suggests her beneficence is fueled at least partly by self-promotional urges. But then again, pic also suggests there’s more than one way to sell yourself, and old habits are very hard to break.
Composer T. Griffin’s musical score is overbearing in some scenes, effectively nuanced in others.