Film Review: Elles

A movie made by women for women, <i>Elles </i>will find a sympathetic audience among those who identify with the woman-in-crisis portrayed by the ever-engaging Juliette Binoche. The rest of us will be perplexed, if not flummoxed, leaving the theatre di

Juliette Binoche, appearing tired and disheveled for most of Elles, plays Anne, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class Parisian juggling two careers, one as journalist and another as homemaker. She writes for Elle magazine, specializing in profiles of celebrities like Tom Ford (fashion designer turned filmmaker, for those who don’t read the glossies), working from her fabulous three-bedroom apartment where she can push back from her iMac to tend to her two children—pseudo-rebellious teenager Florent (François Civil) and computer-gaming adolescent Stéphane (Pablo Beugnet)—and to her workaholic husband, Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). Anne is the type to stay up all night struggling over her latest assignment, rewarding herself with guilty pleasures such as the occasional cigarette and the more occasional glass of wine, and the next day prepare a three-course dinner for Patrick’s boss and business cronies.

It’s the assignment that’s the rub. Elle has Anne investigating the phenomenon of the call-girl coed, apparently quite common in France and presumably elsewhere. Female students financing their educations with a little light prostitution isn’t news, exactly, but these modern women, liberated from outdated moral compunctions, enjoy the sex as much as the money, and that has Anne in a tizzy. Her generation, with a little help from Simone de Beauvoir, did all the heavy lifting, and these kids are having all the fun! But it’s not a matter of resentment; it’s awe and envy.

Elles begins with Anne fantasizing about one of these sex workers, as she calls the students (whom we never see in class), performing fellatio on a client and ends, more or less, with Anne attempting the same on Patrick after the aforementioned dinner, a predictable disaster. The film unfolds between these oral exercises, mostly through a series of illustrated flashbacks (that’s a quaint way of describing sex scenes) during which Anne interviews two subjects, the fresh-faced Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and kohl-eyed Alicja (Joanna Kulig) as they explain the pros and cons of their avocation: To wit, the money’s good and the work mostly pleasurable, although sometimes a client cries inexplicably or transgresses boundaries (snapping a photo with a smart-phone or using a champagne bottle for nether purposes). Neither woman is the least bit bothered by bodily fluids; indeed, Charlotte argues, her clients, married men otherwise faithful to their wives, are safer bets than her boyfriend.

Director Malgoska Szumowska, who wrote the screenplay with Tine Byrckel, wants to explore female desire and notions such as materialism and existentialism. (If ever a movie invited exegeses based on those cinema-studies staples, the Other and the Look, this would be it.) The dullest viewer will grasp that Charlotte and Alicja want what Anne has (wealth, status), while Anne wants what they have (youth, freedom). Elles is very good at showing us how things are—Anne is convincingly rendered, a realistic effigy enlivened with expressionistic touches (lurid imaginings, sterile décor)—but Szumowska is less successful explaining why things are. We know Anne, but we don’t comprehend Anne.

Unless, of course, you are Anne, and she is legion, in Paris, New York, London… this is a movie for that audience, complete with built-in controversy, for attractive, independent prostitutes cheerfully plying their trade strays from the feminist script. Could it be that simple, that we’d all be happier if we were all well-laid? Perhaps it’s time to Occupy Pigalle.