*** (A must-see)

Directed by Lizzie Borden

Written by Borden and Sandra Kay

With Louise Smith, Ellen McElduff, and Amanda Goodwin.

In the history of houses that ain’t exactly homes, Sydney Biddle Barrows, the upper-crust “Mayflower Madam” busted late last year, hardly will rank among the more colorful housekeepers. But the intriguing feature about the blue-blooded Barrows, who ran a swanky, ahem, dating service, is that she appeared so plainly puzzled by all the terribly vulgar fuss, even indignant that the common people failed to recognize her for the folk heroine of private enterprise she really was. After all, the world is ruled by supply and demand (not men); Barrows identified a need and proceeded in her well-bred and tasteful fashion to fill it with premium products.

Ever in pursuit of excellence, Barrows brought the last word in modern managerial techniques to bear on her tricky trade, and while the “product” might make George Gilder blush, how can anyone argue with successful marketing? Business is business. What with American firms facing stiff competition abroad, one ought to welcome well-managed service industries that help square the national trade account by clawing a few dollars back from visiting foreign businessmen. Barrows’s “girls” were chic, hygienic, and pricey; the upscale clientele practically had to obtain security clearances to gain entry. And it’s all between consenting adults. So, leaving aside silly old legalities and outmoded morality, what’s wrong with this otherwise admirable entrepreneurial picture?

Just three things, according to Lizzie Borden’s ferociously funny fictional treatment, Working Girls: the socially warped nature of the demand, the circumstances of the supply, and what happens when demand and supply collide. Shot documentary-style — the low-budget look is an asset — Working Girls is a plotless yet pointed tour of the “play for pay” world of a New York hooker who happens to hold Yale degrees in English lit and art history. Molly (Louise Smith), a lesbian, not only complies with customers’ requests (within a prescribed range of kinkiness) but, a pedant too, does not hesitate to correct their diction or any literary allusions gone awry. “I already rent my body,” says Molly, who has to draw the line somewhere, “but I won’t sell my mind.”

Director Borden eschews moralizing, and for the most part resists temptations to weigh the screen down with discourses upon the degradation of all these pinched male libidos inside the cash nexus. Instead, Borden takes a deceptively breezy naturalistic approach, depicting a maniacally mundane day in the lives of Molly and her colleagues in a luxury high-rise bordello, and lets the sheer accumulation of humdrum detail — laced with humor — demolish the benign just-like-any-other-business facade, pushing that Sydney Biddle Barrows image to its limit. The queasy tension and most of the lacerating laughs Working Girls generates stem from its pitiless focus on the strained complicity among all these masqueraders, who try their best to blur the role money plays in their trysts.

Molly bids adieu to her first client of the day, graciously thanking him for “coming by”; it’s a precarious and crucial kind of bonhomie that is fostered here. Peel it away, and you also strip away the fig leaf (or wallet-sized) dignity these sorry male critters must cling to — and that’s very bad for business. The girls follow a noble calling, claims Lucy, the middle-aged madam whose icy avarice has an evaporating veneer of jollity; the profession is “a skill, an art, in how to make men feel special.” Next thing you know, Lucy is describing her cherished “professionals” as wares to an inquiring phone caller: “a blond, yes, a real blond, a college girl, and Gina.” Molly, Gina, and Dawn (the blond) later are joined by April, who is too shopworn for most of the customers, and several newcomers; their mission is not so much to make men feel “special” as it is to contrive to make them feel less like creeps. This is no small feat, considering the intensive-care cases — from “Fuzzball Jerry” to “Fantasy Fred” — who meander through this milieu of ersatz erotica and bogus thrills.

What these virile gents demand, and pay for, is an illusion of dominance (even the whip-cracking or ping-pong-paddling dominatrix issues commands at their behest); but, aside from a couple of odious characters, most are pathetically pleased merely to be thought sexually competent. Meeting and mating (to say nothing about hanging on to a mate) is awfully risky stuff. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,” Molly advises a bashful teacher seeking dating tips, “and the hardest.” Clients purchase emotional safety and approval, a brief admission to a wonderland where, while the meter is ticking, they need never suffer a brush-off. So it’s not an adventure the clients get, it’s just a job.

But the “working girls” too labor under the illusion that they are in control. “I’m not afraid of guys anymore,” Dawn, who did not matriculate at Yale or even Smith, announces. “All you gotta do is give them what they want.” Simple. Molly, who reads things like Das Kapital and She Stoops to Conquer, may well blurt out: “I can’t believe I’m really doing this.” Neither can we. But she is, and she is obviously more “free to choose” than her cohort. By centering on her, Borden is able to confront the just-another-business plea head-on. In one way, it is just another business, but as Borden goes on to show, that’s not all it is.

The employees work shifts, supply their own accessories (garter belts and stockings, condoms, Kleenex, and K-Y jelly), and are monitored by a boss eager to squeeze all the productivity she can from the labor force. Lucy scolds Dawn for notching up 25 percent fewer patrons this week and lauds Molly for her exemplary output. Madam Lucy is fastidious, self-pitying, and comically rapacious; when she’s out of earshot, the “girls” deride her as mercilessly as they do the patrons, and devise ways of denying her her customarily exorbitant cut. The services themselves are rendered in a fairly perfunctory fashion. Prurient this film ain’t; repeated viewings probably could cure teenage acne. And poor Madam Lucy, coping as best she can with an unruly, unreliable, and unappreciative staff, daydreams aloud about a sort of Stakhanovite hooker named Carrie, whose cheerfulness, eagerness to please, and centerfold body made her the perfect employee — sort of a Stepford wife, only the rental model. “If I could xerox Carrie,” Lucy sighs in sentimental reverie, “I’d make a fortune.”

The clients may dream of perfect women whom they can wind up and enrapture whenever they please; employers, be they corporate magnates or madams, yearn for perfect, automated workers who exist only to hike up the profit margins. There’s nothing wrong with sexual or labor relations that advanced robotics can’t eventually cure; let’s face it, the live ones are a damned nuisance a lot of the time. What do the “underlings” long for? Who cares? What matters is who has the power to impress those dreams of domination on reality. And here director Borden suggests the slyly subversive notion that maybe, just maybe, the Mayflower Madam, queen of commodified coitus, by treating brothel management as just another business was on to something, after all.