“Elles” – intellectualizing sex to death [MOVIE REVIEW]

juliette binoche
Juliette Binoche in Elles, a film by Malgorzata Szumowska. Photo: Szymon Roginski
juliette binoche

Juliette Binoche in Elles, a film by Malgorzata Szumowska. Photo: Szymon Roginski

“Elles,” the provocative film by Malgoska Szumowska that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, borders on the pornographic as it explores the life of Anne (Juliette Binoche), an upper middle class journalist for “Elle” magazine, and the two student prostitutes who are the focus of her article.

Anne, interviewing her subjects, finds herself increasingly immersed in their world and dissatisfied with her own. Although her questions are judgmental and leading, the girls have valid, or at least self-justified reasons for doing what they do.

Disturbingly sexually explicit, the film ends up going in mundane and predictable directions when it veers into Anne’s dissatisfaction with her own life. “Elles” underscores, in subtle and unsubtle ways, that old hoary chestnut that all women prostitute themselves in one way or another, whether it’s as the good wife watching over the family treasures rewarded with a comfortable lifestyle, or as a prostitute whose only chance at gaining a foothold in the world into which Anne was born is through the wealth they earn filling the void that marriage has left in the men they service. Framing the story of the two young women who jumped more or less eagerly into the world of the paid escort against the unfulfilled woman who seemingly has it all (including an elite profession), does little to forward the story. Stereotype slows the action and diminishes the real questions that arise when Anne interviews the girls.

Each girl, a student at the university, faced the kind of problems that money could solve, if only they had money. The first, a girl from a meager background, was dissatisfied with the kind of life she could lead by working part time in a fast food restaurant. It left her no time to study for the exams she needed to pass to obtain a place at one of the prestigious schools and gave her little more than sustenance. Her ultimate goal was to distance herself as far as she could from the mundane lower class life lived by her parent. As she so aptly put it, she never wanted to have to wear acrylic again.

The other girl, a Polish émigré whose existence at the university where she had been accepted to study economics was compromised when all her possessions were stolen upon arrival. Not afforded any help by the school and knowing no one, she accepts the kindness of a stranger and realizes that she has something to sell. A bit more self-loathing than the other student prostitute, she is, nevertheless, happy with the ease with which she can support her studies in a style to which she had not been accustomed.

As could be easily predicted, Anne goes from judgmental to intrigued and then overtly dissatisfied. It’s a story told often and usually, as in this case, not told particularly well. Director Szumowska is not Luis Bunuel and this is no “Belle du Jour.” Ann is neither sexually adventurous nor particularly self-loathing; she’s just dissatisfied that her sex life is unfulfilling (as much her fault as his), that her children don’t do what she says, and that her editor keeps pressing for a deadline. Binoche does as much as she can with the role, but in the end, the fault lies not with the acting. The two girls playing the prostitutes, Joanna Kulig and Anaï Demoustier, fare better as their story is more nuanced and, in several meanings of the word, explicit.

Opening April 27 for 2 weeks at the Nuart in West Los Angeles. This film is rated NC-17. In French with subtitles.

Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at http://www.nomeanerplace.com

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