Agnès Is Not a Prostitute

Synopses of the plot of Les dames du bois de Boulogne usually describe Agnès as a prostitute. A prostitute is one whose business is providing sex to clients who pay a specified fee (or so I am told). The film goes out of its way to demonstrate that Agnès is not in that class. A repeated theme is the many bouquets she receives from admirers. Does a man send flowers to a prostitute? The character of her mother also refutes the label of prostitute. After Agnès’s dance in the cabaret, her mother urges her to hurry because men are waiting in their apartment. If Agnès were a prostitute, her mother would be acting in the despised role of procuress. Yet the mother is portrayed throughout as a dignified and loving parent, whose wise guidance leads to Agnès’s spiritual redemption. The film offers no hint of an ironic contrast between those noble qualities and the repugnant action of selling her daughter.

In reality, Agnès occupies an intermediate role, between respectable woman and prostitute. Such a role no longer exists, and we have no word for it. In Agnès’s society, a certain type of woman might keep her home open to well-to-do men and accept expensive gifts from them. Such a woman would imply that she might extend sexual favors to the visitors who pleased her, but she would guarantee nothing. The men would enjoy the challenge and competition in this arrangement, more exciting than a commercial visit to a prostitute. The symbolic scene where Agnès is locked in her bedroom and the men pound on the door suggests that she never even reached the point of sexual liaison with any of her admirers.

It’s true that Hélène tells Jean that Agnès is a “grue” (“tramp”) who has a crowd of “amants” (“lovers”). Hélène is trying to put the situation in the worst light to wound Jean. And yet even this accusation does not mean that Agnès is necessarily a prostitute. Agnès is indeed a tramp, a woman of loose morals: her conduct is shameful and will ruin Jean socially after the marriage. But a woman could be a “grue” in this way without being a prostitute. And “lover” had more shades of meaning then than it does now: it applied to mere suitors, just as “to make love” could mean merely to woo. The main difference between Agnès’s conduct and that of a respectable single woman is that Agnès doesn’t require her suitors to promise eventual marriage and doesn’t promise it herself.

There is an even more decisive reason why Agnès isn’t a prostitute: the film’s genre excludes that possibility. The film, while an artistic masterpiece, is also a sentimental work of entertainment. Sentimentality requires that Agnès be no worse than the plot mechanisms demand. The assumption that she is a prostitute -- which ignores the evidence on the screen, the nuances of her society, and the codes of the film’s genre -- is an instance of the crude knowingness we adopt today in an attempt to appear sophisticated.


Yeah, for some reason, I found it hard to believe that she was a prostitute... but only for a while. Because if she wasn't a prostitute, all that talk about her depressing and saddening past was a little ridiculous, wasn't it? I think it's a stretch to believe that she's running away from her dark past solely because she accepted a few gifts from a dozen men and provided 'em with a good (yet ultimately unfulfilled) chase.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.


I guess Agnes's role would be similar to geishas. Whereas they danced, played the samisen and even accepted gifts from wealthy men, sex did not play as high a role as people today think. Ages was apparently very good as it and became infamous but she had dreams of becoming a real dancer which she was forced to give up. Time away from "the life" restores her humanity (she even starts appreciating potted flowers again)but she & her mother were at the mercy of Helene and she knew it. This is why she wants so desperately to run far away as well as the fact that men around town knew her which makes any chance of changing her life extremely difficult.

Jamie Lee Curtis survived Halloween,a Fog, Prom Night and Terror Train & now she can't poop!


It's a fascinating subject. Agnes's mother suffers a reversal of fortune and is obliged to put her daughter to work in nightclubs, where the moral tone is a bit lax. Helene follows the two women home and is witness to a highly embarrassing scene in which the rejected men bang on the bedroom door, not exactly dignified behaviour in Paris or anywhere else, for that matter.

It's hard to assign a role to Agnes. She's not a streetwalker (which is the meaning of 'grue'--comes from the crane's ability to stand up on one foot), nor is she a bourgeoise of impeccable moral standing. Helene's plot to revenge herself on Jean is helped immeasurably by his blinkered views about women. It's just too easy for him to hold Mother/Whore ideas where the love of his life is concerned.


In reality, Agnès occupies an intermediate role, between respectable woman and prostitute. Such a role no longer exists, and we have no word for it.

Maybe cocotte or demi-mondaine?

Very interesting posts, thanks to everybody for the insights.

in absentia


I think it is actually heavily implied that she is indeed a prostitute. Like maz said, all the fuss about her past points in that direction.

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I don't think you have understood the posts above.

Jean is a wealthy and it seems idle man from the top levels of society. Since any woman he marries must be acceptable in that setting, any hint of a shady past will condemn both him and her to exclusion.

A night club dancer who lets men into her flat after work is not acceptable, regardless of whether she sleeps with these admirers or accepts gifts in return.


I have read the book from which this movie was made. Believe me, she is a prostitute in the book. And she and her mother are intense social climbers and not nearly as innocent as they seem in the film! Much is left to the imagination in the movie.


By chance looking up old posts, I was very interested to see your contribution. Yes, the book is a lot blunter than the film, but it still leaves us the problem of finding an accurate label for Agnès.

In the original, the mother was reduced to keeping a gambling den where men played cards for money, ate and drank. When it closed, one or two customers stayed for the night with either mother or daughter, at their choice.

Now what words would we use for this in 21st century English? The establishment is a sort of private club and the two women are sort of hostesses. As they are clearly including sex for money as part of the service, could one call it a casino plus brothel? Prostitution is not an inaccurate word, but isn't it only part of what the two sporting ladies offer?