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Personal Services
IMDB Rating: 6.3/10 from votes
Release: 12 February 1987 (West Germany) /

Personal Services

Genre: Comedy
Director:
Stars: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: The story of the rise of a madame of a suburban brothel catering to older men, inspired by the real experiences of Cynthia Payne.

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Critic Reviews

Personal Services is an exceptional film that has been underrated, ignored and obscured by the avalanche of goon comedies which crowd the late 80's and 90's. Its portrait of a kindly brothel keeper do-gooder (which might be described as the kinky, middle aged s&m version of Austen's Emma) is so packed with outrageous imagery, one could forget to admire its level headed attitude toward sex. The glee it takes at exposing the absolute silliness of adults on the subject, as well as its constant stabs at the hypocrisy of the British middle class makes it stand out. Neither of those subjects are particularly unknown to British comedy, of course, but Personal Services never lets up, and skewers so many shoddy English values at the rate of swatting flies.

The film is a strong departure of style for Terry Jones, its director, whose former The Meaning of Life would lead us to imagine another style altogether. Certainly he is drawn to the material for its surrealistic and madcap flavor, but he surprisingly brings qualities of realism, detail and nitty-grit to the episodes that help keep the film grounded in a believable social milieu.

The script, by David Leland (Mona Lisa) is a fictional account that follows the rise of Cynthia Payne, the English madame who became the darling of the English press after several arrests in the middle 80's. Leland also wrote and directed a film released the same year (Wish You Were Here) which captures Payne in her teen-age years, but Personal Services is much tighter, rapid-fire and more ambitious.

The film veers between outrageous comic episodes and very real emotional moments that reflect the social realist scenes of earlier English films like A Taste of Honey and Room at the Top. The struggle of a woman deciding whether to take the plunge and become a prostitute; the scene where the heroine confronts her distant dad at her sister's wedding; the scenes that reflect the loneliness and isolation the heroine feels may not seem appropriate in a pull-out-all-the-stops laugh fest, but they help to deepen the themes of the film, and give it both depth and breath. One of the more melancholy themes that stays dominant in the film is the deep emotional price one must pay for being a non-conformist.

The vivid imagery Jones brought to the Monty Python films serves an equally symbolic purpose here. The image of a prostitute with angel's wings flapping pitifully about a moonlit garden as she tries to escape the policeman who tackles her is an image which welds perfectly the film's sacred and profane themes and is unforgettable. And there are so many daring, in your face scenes ––the discipline scenes in the brothel; the exposure of Dotty in the john; the marvelous gift the madame gives both her father and son–– and they keep the film more surprising and fresh than most sex comedies of the 90's.

Julie Waters gives one of her wittiest, shaded, and full performances but she is only one–– the many character actors in the film are perfect in tone and work together in extraordinary ways. The film serves as a reality check about one's own up-tight attitudes about sex. (Your own squirming should be a revelation! ) American viewers need to be very much on their toes, however, because some of the funniest dialogue is rapid (with authentic accents) and often thrown away. Also helpful is to realize the slang expression `willie' does NOT refer to a dolphin, but to a guy's you know what.

I am always running into people who discovered this film on their own, and hold it high on their list of the greatest comedies. I urge you to discover it for yourself!

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