France/Poland (2011) Dir. Malgorzata Szumowska
Working mother of two Anne (Juliette Binoche), an investigative journalist for Elle magazine, is writing an article about student prostitution, for which she secures interviews with two young working girls, Polish immigrant Alicja (Joanna Kulig) and lower class French girl Charlotte (Anais Demoustier). To her surprise, Anne doesn’t find two debauched and troubled girls, instead finds they revel in the freedoms their questionable job brings them, forcing a reawakening in Anne’s own sexuality.
Polish director and screenwriter Malgorzata Szumowska throws her hat in the ring to cover what is fast becoming a familiar subject in modern movies – that being the resurrection of a moribund sex life for a respectable middle classed woman. Szumowska apparently did some heavy research for this film basing some of the exploits on real life experiences from genuine prostitute she interviewed, raising questions of the peccadilloes of French men and whether it was a case of art imitating life or vice versa, since some of the slew of explicit scenes here incorporating the odd fetish, one of which I am surprised made it past the censors for what is essentially a “mainstream” (i.e non-porn) film.
And this is what will be the problem with the film for many viewers. While not an all out sex-a-thon as some people might have us believe, this is an intrinsic part of the story and is shown in bold explicitness while just stopping short of flat out pornography. So where’s the problem you may ask? The film stars the highly respected and versatile Juliette Binoche whose body of work ranks her up with the best in modern cinema, yet her participation in this film might not sit well with her “mainstream” fans. However, it is due to Binoche and her committed performance, along with those of Joanna Kulig and Anais Demoustier – the latter a real revelation – that saves this film from complete dismissal as being a quagmire of tawdry pseudo-erotica.
It might not be clear from watching, but the film takes place over the course of a day as Anne is preparing for a dinner party with the boss of her husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) while fretting over her obnoxious teenage son Florent (François Civil), who one wants to slap from the very second he appears on screen. Anne’s interviews with Charlotte and Alicja are told through flashback, the former in park and the latter in her flash apartment, bought with the money made from her job. Also told in flashback, we learn that Alicja’s entry into the world’s oldest profession came after she arrived from Poland to further her studies only to have her belonging stolen and little help from the student housing staff. A fellow student offers Alicja a room but wants something in return. You can guess the rest. Anne learns that Alicja doesn’t seem to regret her choices, instead enjoying the freedoms and rewards it brings her. Charlotte on the other hand lives in squalor and yearns to break away from her housing estate surroundings, using this is as a means to an end. Charlotte, unlike Alicja, has a boyfriend resulting in her having to compromise her personal relationships.
The end result is mixture of slow burning psycho drama and expose which gives out mixed messages about what Szumowska’s intentions were. Are we supposed to understand these girls more and possibly sympathise with the circumstances that drew them onto the game? Or do we try to get behind overworked, stressed and underappreciated mother in a male dominated household Anne who suddenly finds the frank attitudes of her interviewees provides some subliminal catalysis for her own sexual explorations? The other side of the coin is the clients themselves and the message which is very clear is that they are just as ordinary as everyone else; one couldn’t pick them out of a crowd as there is no neon sign hovering over them as a hint. Szumowska therefore has somewhat rationalised the desires for sex and those who provide the service to satiate that as simple common, human trait – albeit one that comes with emotional side effects.
On the production front, there is little to criticise; it is well shot, the use of classical music is inventive, occasionally perverse and as said before, the main performances are sublime. Whether the sex needed to be so graphic is going to be the main point of contention and some of the content may be off putting, thus putting the viewer into the position of voyeur and an unwilling one at that. One can’t help but wonder how much emotional impact this film could have had if the sex was handled with a greater deal of restraint and subtlety.
Elles is that rare film which the parts are greater than the sum. On paper it looks like it should be a great film but in execution it feels more of a salacious peep show intruding on a well acted drama. Binoche is on rare form and her two young co-stars are names for the future, all three proving to be better than the vehicle that carries their names.