Anne (Juliette Binoche), a Parisian journalist for Elle magazine, investigates on students prostitution. She met Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a busty blond from Poland. and Charlotte (Anais Demoustier), a girl-next-door type from the suburbs – two students who moonlight as prostitutes in order to fund their university studies. Charlotte likes the extra cash; Alicja couldn’t afford to live in France without it.
Anne’s revealing encounters with Charlotte and Alicja (Joanna Kulig) intersect with difficulties at home, leading her to question what she believes about her own relationships to family, money and sex. The girls envy her bourgeois stability while she comes to want their self-possessed freedom, though the lives of all three are shown to be not quite so clear-cut.
Anne’s interviews with the two young women are presented in fragments, inserted into a few days of home life that test Anne’s domestic skills. Her younger son spends too much time playing video games; her older one is cutting classes and smoking pot. And her husband expects her to cook and host a gourmet dinner for his boss and his wife.
Elles is most remarkable as a naturalistic portrait of a woman. As an essay on women’s roles in society and cross-generational female desire, the film provides many questions with no easy answers. It’s tempting to call “Elles” some kind of thinking-person’s sex movie, but it’s more about thinking and about sex (and thinking about sex) and is far more likely to encourage awkward, emphatic conversation than post-show friskiness.
Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) – the fresh-faced college student working her way through school as “Lola,” a freelance escort for mostly middle-aged men – is shown during a physical encounter with a handsome man about her own age (Swann Arlaud). The liaison is hot, and surprisingly tender. The sex, which we’re initially meant to assume is with the boyfriend Charlotte has been telling Anne about, for once seems to be about more than an economic transaction – until even this guy pulls out a wad of cash and lays it on the bed. And that’s the point: to blur the line between desire and its more mercenary manifestations. But director Malgoska Szumowska (who co-wrote the provocative but frustrating film with Tine Byrckel) makes that point so often that all subtlety is lost. Sex, the filmmaker argues, is a commodity that women have, that men want and that women will exchange for what they really want, e.g., a bathroom with a view or expensive shoes. It’s not a very progressive idea, or an original one. All women are prostitutes, and all men are johns. Strip away the trappings of upscale bourgeois life, and a wife — even an upscale professional wife — is a household slave, expected to cook, clean and take care of the children. Her husband might deign to make love to her after she cooks a fancy dinner for his boss. All it takes for her to keep the peace is some well-timed flirtatious role-playing. But he has to initiate the amorous reward.
The women in “Elles” – whose title is the female form of the French pronoun “they” – are the eternal Other. It’s the men who hold the power and the purse strings in the world.
Parallels are repeatedly drawn between Anne’s husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who tells his wife to lay off all her “feminist” talk at a dinner party they’re hosting – and for which she has done all the cooking – and Charlotte’s and Alicja’s male clients, who also bark orders of their own: go faster, go slower and do things that can’t be described in a family newspaper. Anne observes that she isn’t even sure whether Charlotte and Alicja really are prostitutes – or at least any more than all women are, as she puts it.
It’s hardly a novel formulation — Luis Bunuel was here with lacerating wit back in 1967’s “Belle de Jour,” and dozens of movies and television shows have wrestled with some version of the notion. “Elles” is on its strongest ground when it obliquely depicts the ways society imprisons women in an emotional and financial reliance on men (whereas men just want sex and dinner and don’t care much where it comes from).
Binoche, is in one of her rawest performances since 1991’s The Lovers of the Pont Neuf. Juliette Binoche gives a committed performance as a journalist investigating teenage prostitution, but the salacious treatment of the subject matter teeters on the edge of voyeurism. She proves why she is such a world-renowned actress with the way she conveys ideas flickering across her brow and flashing behind her eyes. That skill makes her especially adept at portraying a journalist sitting in front of a computer or padding about her nicely appointed apartment, trying to focus on work but letting her mind wander to the laundry or the dishes or assorted distracted reveries. Anne’s slightest mood swing registers as the deeply felt moment-to-moment experience of a woman whose daily life is portrayed as a series of small frustrations and humiliations (underscored by Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony).
The two student-age sex workers, played by Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig. Both are estimable young actors – Demoustier played the lead in the excellent French indie Living on Love Alone while Kulig appears alongside Ethan Hawke in the upcoming film The Woman in the Fifth.
CAST & CREDITS:
Anne Juliette Binoche
Charlotte Anais Demoustier
Alicja Joanna Kulig
Kino Lorber presents a film Directed by Malgoska Szumowska; written by Tine Byrckel and Ms. Szumowska; director of photography, Michal Englert; edited by Françoise Tourmen and Jacek Drosio; art direction by Pauline Bourdon; costumes by Katarzyna Lewinska; produced by Marianne Slot; released by Kino Lorber. In French and Polish, with English subtitles. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated NC-17 (for explicit sexual content).
WITH: Juliette Binoche (Anne), Anaïs Demoustier (Charlotte), Joanna Kulig (Alicja), Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (Patrick), François Civil (Florent) , Pablo Beugnet (Stéphane) and Jean-Marie Binoche (Anne’s father).
In “Elles,” Juliette Binoche stars as a work-obsessed, discontented journalist. Her bourgeois life, presented mostly in a pristine Paris apartment and cloaked in muted shades of whites and grays, contrasts sharply with those of the subjects of her latest article, two female students who also work as prostitutes. Ms. Binoche’s character, Anne, is at first dismissive and shocked by their choices, but over the course of the film, which screens at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday afternoon and opens in select theaters on Friday, finds they have fears, and desires, in common.
Though the movie’s casually graphic depiction of sex feels very French, “Elles” was actually made by a Polish director, Malgorzata Szumowska, who spent time with young prostitutes before shooting. The film aims to highlight the hypocrisy in a culture in which magazines use women’s bodies to sell objects alongside articles condemning women who sell their bodies to buy those objects. Ms. Binoche, who plans to work with Ms. Szumowska on another film, “Sisters,” talked to us by phone from Paris about prostitution, sex and Polish film. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
The motivation of those young girls is difficult to understand because from the outside, you think they want the luxury items or they’re so influenced by a society that shows that young girls must seduce, but the motivations are more hidden. In the documentary I saw, they would buy things, but they wouldn’t put them on. Because when you have it, you don’t want it anymore. It doesn’t give the satisfaction, but the need is still there and so what is that need? Why do they need to go see those middle-aged men? It’s related to a protection they’re looking for, and they can’t feel. There’s something in the structure of their heart that is not stable.