Jeanette Maier, the firecracker featured in Cameron Yates's "The Canal Street Madam," is a natural screen presence: The once-powerful overseer of a popular New Orleans brothel, she exudes old fashioned charm while maintaining a seductive aura and a filthy mouth. But she's also defined by the courage of her convictions, even when they seem unclear.
Maier, whose eponymous brothel operated successfully from 1999 to 2001 until an FBI bust landed her three years of probation and a series of other convictions, refuses to back down from the nature of her reputation. "I'm proud to be a whore," she says, with a powerful degree of self-confidence that might even lead some feminists to give her a pass.
But even as Maier commands the screen in Yates's verite collage of scenes from her recent life, the director only gives us glimpses of her entire story. "The Canal Street Madam" is composed of scenes in which Maier and her family discuss her uneven personal life, in addition to those in which she basks in the spotlight of her provocations during public appearances. Since we learn very little about Maier's descent into the world of prostitution (she recalls being sexually abused by her uncle, leaving the psychoanalysis up to viewers), she only exists as the sum of her experiences. Much of her appeal (or lack thereof) in recent New Orleans history is taken for granted, which can create a distancing effect for viewers unfamiliar with her plight.
Nevertheless, "The Canal Street Madam" remains singularly engaging for the way that Yates manages to draw a contrast between her public image and tattered personal life. His camera captures intimate familial disputes (including a scene in which she discovers one of her grown sons taking heroin) and her stop-and-start impoverished lifestyle. Her legacy hides a deeper, more tragic reality -- although the extent to which she suffers from her libidinous ways never fully emerges.
Yates depicts his subject as a figure of fierce iconoclasm, which is another way of saying that the movie generally feels slanted in her favor, sometimes to the detriment of the movie's credibility as a straight verite portrait. On television, Maier never hesitates to remind the public of her pride. She calls prostitution "a victimless crime," leaving us to wonder if she's unaware of the damage that her seedy tendencies have obviously afflicted on her family. Her children berate her for routinely making incendiary remarks in the media, establishing an argument over whether her relaxed use of the word "whore" hurts or helps her publicity. The answer is the ultimate paradox at the core of the Madam's persona.