No Mandatory Retirement In The Red-Light District

Aug 8, 2012

Despite its dreadful English title (the Dutch title translates to the far better Old Whores), Meet the Fokkens strives mightily to be as quirky and bubbly as its portly protagonists. And it mostly succeeds, painting a warmhearted portrait of a pair of elderly twin prostitutes — they turned 70 earlier this year — one of whom, Martine, still occupies a storefront window in Amsterdam's red-light district while her sister, Louise, gave up the game two years earlier because of arthritis.

"I couldn't get one leg over the other," she explains, after half a century of performing more adventurous contortions. "We used to be very agile," she laments wistfully, and watching her strut along the cobblestones in high leather boots, I can well believe it. Nowadays it's only Martine who bounces into the local news agent's to purchase an economy-sized box of condoms, though Louise often sits companionably alongside her leather-clad sister as she beckons to potential clients.

Though we never see them, the filmmakers Gabrielle Provaas and Rob Schroder are there too, trailing the virtually inseparable siblings as they dine together, browse a selection of sex toys, and cycle to the beach in matching sundresses. Posing for delighted tourists in identical floral ensembles, the twins appear to be a beloved fixture in their neighborhood and can barely take a stroll without being stopped for a chat. But this overload of whimsy and good cheer — frequently underlined by snatches of organ-grinder tunes — tends to mask the darker memories dredged up by archival film and photographs. As we learn of an abusive husband turned pimp and a daughter lost to foster care, the sisters' struggle for autonomy (they opened Amsterdam's only independent brothel until they were forced out by organized crime) reveals a touching commitment to mutual survival.

But decades of servicing an average of 10 clients a day, six days a week, has taken its toll. "I could have done without this nonsense," admits Martine, bemoaning the inadequate state pension and her financially precarious future. These days, she tries to limit her business to creative foreplay. Surrounded by younger, comelier competition, she breezily attends to faithful regulars, a dominatrix-lite who uses a vibrator on unresponsive penises and a ping-pong paddle on flabby behinds.

As though mimicking Martine's priorities, these graphic games feature distinct genitalia and blurry faces; even so, it's a shock how many men allow themselves to be filmed, distinguishing warts and all. Yet the explicitness, and Martine's jokey work ethic, meshes perfectly with an eccentric filmmaking style that may lack focus but overflows with vivaciousness. Carefully avoiding downers like the dangers of the profession, the directors present sex for money as a ton of fun. And to the Fokkens sisters, that seems as good a description as any: whether wrangling nipple clamps or reminiscing about "all the Yiddish boys," these ladies have learned that anything is bearable as long as you're not alone.

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