The first segment - "The Prehistoric Era" - is set in a vaguely Flintstonesesque stone age where a young woman (Michèle Mercier), spurned by the man she is infatuated with, takes her revenge in a way that introduces the concept of paying for sex into the world. There is the germ of something here, but this segment never really goes anywhere. Mercier is too petulant and capricious, the other performances too flat. The whole affair is basically a one joke setup, badly told. On the other hand, it does sell sex. With Michèle Mercier running around in an animal skin bikini for the duration, there is eye candy aplenty.
For segment two - "Roman Nights" - we leap ahead a few hundred thousand years to Imperial Rome, in its decline. The Emperor Flavius (Gastone Moschin), depressed that the depleted state of the royal coffers prevents him from hosting a proper Roman orgy, sneaks off to an upscale public brothel, where he is at first shocked - and then excited - to discover that the woman he has just paid to have sex with is his moonlighting wife, the Empress Domitilla (Elsa Martinelli). In some ways this is perhaps the most disappointing segment. All the elements are here for what could have been a really enjoyable Carry-On style farce, but whole thing never really gels. Once again, the best thing about it is the eye candy. Elsa Martinelli - really only a supporting player - isn't given much to do, but she is afforded several glamour shots, and absolutely makes the most of them. She is utterly gorgeous here.
"Mademoiselle Mimi" takes us to France during the Reign of Terror. Mimi (Jeanne Moreau) is a successful prostitute/kept woman who seems to have nothing but contempt for the officials of the Committee of Public Safety who shower her with gifts - and proposals of marriage - but allows herself to be taken in by an obviously ersatz noble (Jean-Claude Brialy), claiming that he will inherit his uncle's vast estate, once said uncle loses his head to Madame Guillotine. If "Roman Nights" is the most disappointing segment because it fails to live up its potential, then "Mademoiselle Mimi" is the weakest, because it has none at all. The storyline is groan-worthy in its predictability, characters are uniformly unlikable and I found nothing at all to recommend about this segment. Frankly, I have never understood the appeal of Jeanne Moreau - either as one of France's supposedly great beauties or great actresses. On both counts - of her films I have seen - she consistently appears to have been at least a week without sleep, and her turn here does nothing to alter that impression.
The film's most successful segment, "The Good Times", features Raquel Welch as Nini, an obviously upscale prostitute in pre WWI Vienna, who - lamenting the recent dearth of well-heeled clientele - settles one evening for a rather dull-looking middle-aged prospect (Martin Held). Back at an apartment that he has "borrowed from a friend", there is an exceedingly brief wham, bam, thank you, ma'am encounter, following which the john falls into a coma-like slumber and Nini prepares to depart. However, when in the process of helping herself to a few bills from the man's wallet, she finds business cards revealing that he is in fact a very wealthy banker, Nini is struck by inspiration and plots a long game, with her sights on the big brass ring at the end. "The Good Times" is light, amusing, well paced and pays off for both Nini and the audience at the end. Additionally, Raquel Welch - at the height of her - considerable - beauty is quite good as Nini. All in all, things are looking up as we jump ahead in time once again.
Set in 1960's Paris, "Today" features France Anglade as Catherine, a modern day working girl, and Nadia Gray (playing a character called 'Nadia') as what is essentially her pimp - though that is decidedly too strong a term. Nadia is Catherine's manager, agent, enabler and chauffeur, but above all else, she is quite obviously her friend, and the relationship between the pair - and the shenanigans they get up to - has a very Lucy and Ethel feel to it. When Catherine suffers a setback due to an error in judgment in the course of her professional activities, it is Nadia - during a detour in the storyline - who comes up with the unconventional idea of conducting business in an ambulance. Of course, in typical Lucy and Ethel fashion, on their first night out in their new brothel on wheels, Catherine and Nadia catch the attention of the gendarmes and comedic panic ensues. "Today" is a thoroughly enjoyable segment, with engaging, likable characters and performances, broader humor and plenty of energy.
From the fluff and fun of "Today" the film shifts to the far future, and the film's final segment, with Jean-Luc Godard's "Anticipation". Set in a - literally - colourless and dystopian future, an ambassador from another galaxy (Jacques Charrier) discovers that existence on Earth has become so rigid and specialized that a prostitute he can have sex with (Marilù Tolo) cannot speak and a prostitute who can speak (Anna Karina) cannot have sex. Unsatisfied with either option, he introduces a new idea into this bleak world. This segment is so tonally out of sync with the rest of the film that it is very hard to render judgment on it. "Anticipation" is not a comedy. There are absurd elements, but while they might - possibly - elicit a slight smile, there is nary a chuckle to be found. Depending upon how charitable you are inclined to be, thematically and stylistically, "Anticipation" is really only an encapsulation or a rehashing of Godard's ALPHAVILE.
The US cut of THE OLDEST PROFESSION is some twenty minutes shorter than the European original and these trims are decidedly detrimental to the film. For the most part why these cuts were performed is incomprehensible to me, however in "Anticipation", they are blatantly made to remove the nudity that is unique to the Godard segment. Unnecessary colour tinting is added to this segment for the exact same reason.
A film that could only have been made in the 1960's - that odd era with its strange mix of "modern" sexual liberation and old-fashioned pre-feminism - as a whole, THE OLDEST PROFESSION (IN THE WORLD) is an example of a film's reach exceeding its grasp. There are things to like about it, but there are plenty of missed opportunities as well. It is a film worth seeing, but with properly moderated expectations.