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The Pink House

DOC NYC 2017 Review

Independent; 79 minutes

Director: Sascha Ettinger Epstein

Written by on November 17, 2017 

In Kalgoorlie, Australia, once a booming town, men used to come to pick the gold from the hills until the market took a nosedive leading to a negative effect on the local economy that’s discussed through the lens of one industry, the oldest profession in the world. Sure, the prim and proper Madame Carmel, three times a widower, blames the influx of Asian immigrants advertising in the local paper and not Tinder and the normalization of one-night stands. Her local employee is BJ, a 45-year-old sex worker who started in the industry for the wrong reasons: to support her drug habit, which leads her down a dark path as The Pink House strays into the wild and off the reservation.

Inspired by the Maysles’ Grey Gardens, Sascha Ettinger Epstein’s lens focuses mostly on its two leads living and working together. Carmel, a proper, energetic woman of 80, purchases the historic Questa Casa, Western Australia’s oldest brothel on dodgy old Hay Street. From the outside it is not much of a building, a house attached to a row of curated steel, but Madame Carmel is happy to show paying customers around, subsidizing the operation with day-time tourists. Playing house keeper rather than den mother her time isn’t spent managing her employees so much as it is spent dusting sex toys in unused rooms and swiping the occasional credit card for BJ’s clients.


In the evening BJ is forced on to the street to flirt and prospect, mostly coming up cold until one good night which forces a relapse. Most days, however, are slow much to the taunting of local rival Mary-Ann who still can’t make things work with more desirable real estate. She’s turned her brothel briefly into a hotel and later an event space with additional services, lamenting the old doggy Hay Street is not what it once was.

Directed with a tender eye by Epstein, The Pink House is a gentle portrait of two women, one conservative enough to refuse to allow certain acts in the brothel and BJ, an aging women whose specialty is implied by her name. New girls come and go and they’re rarely the subjects of Epstein’s lens, apart from Julia who is in it to fund her travel. Pretty and younger, she does well and leaves, onwards to the next adventure.


With a limited focus on the women, the rest is transactional as BJ comes to discover Carmel is one of the few people who really cares. The Pink House is a fascinating document of time and place rather than an issue film, unlike what is front and center in Catherine Scott’s Scarlet Road. Films like The Pink House simply allow us to slip into the lives of those we might never get to meet in our travels.

Fredrick Wiseman likes to push back against the term “documentary,” claiming his films are simply “movies” because they contain characters as interesting as anything Hollywood produces. The Pink House proves this point beautifully, even in its most jarring passages, which seem out of place with the tone set by Madame Carmel and strangely inauthentic to the hell BJ unleashes upon herself. A disturbing third act twist that’s stranger than fiction proves to not help; perhaps to the good fortune of the filmmakers they choose to take the high ground. The Pink House isn’t sexy or sensational but rather playful as it finds humor and sadness in genuine characters, like a cross between a Mike Leigh and John Waters film.

The Pink House screened at DOC NYC.


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