16, March, 2012
Director: Malgoska Szumowska Run Time: 99 mins
Reviewed by Delme Stephenson
Juliette Binoche delivers a skilled performance as a journalist investigating student prostitution and awakening dormant passions, in Elles. Unfortunately the film is fatally flawed as Polish directorMalgoska Szumowska presents an unbalanced perspective that ultimately compromises its probing premise. It’s a shame because underneath its multiple narratives Elles is an intelligent film with noble intentions.
Elles is told from the perspective of Ann (Juliette Bincohe), a Paris based investigative journalist for a high profile women’s fashion magazine. She is a wife to a successful businessman and a caring mother. Seemingly happy and content with her life, Anne’s beliefs are challenged by her research. After persuading two female students to discuss their experiences of prostitution with her, Anne expects Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig) to share events of turmoil and affliction, yet she is surprised to find that both women have found their situations empowering and liberating. Anne’s professional façade begins to fracture as her research leads her to question contemporary western societal values and her own sexual desires.
Director Malgoska Szumowska and screenwriter Tine Byrckel have created a feature that presents a very different fantasised version of prostitution. The women in the piece derive pleasure with sleeping with men for money and are unapologetic objects of sexual desire. It’s a subversive perspective that is not as entirely shocking or original as it would like us to believe, but it is still nevertheless an engaging arrangement.
One unfortunate encounter aside, the image of the suffering female prostitute that is often bandied about in the media is largely absent in this film. This is problematic as the characters of the two student-age sex workers are not treated with the same level of depth or respect as Juliette Binoche’s protagonist. It’s Binoche’s mid-life crisis that eventually takes centre stage. Her research subjects are treated as trivial plot devices when it is clear a greater balance is needed if the film is to achieve its thematic concerns.
Elles cannot be discussed without reference to its numerous sex scenes, which verge or even indulge in voyeurism and eroticism. Yet, I found their explicitness confrontational. This is a film that wants to challenge its audience, and is able to do this visually. The media often treats prostitution with moral disapproval and voyeuristic curiosity, placing moralising reports opposite images of women as sexual objects. The film walks a fine line by leaving the camera to linger on crisply shot sex scenes, but I personally found its boldness in this respect intriguing.
Juliette Binoche is fearless in the lead role and is an amazing screen presence, but credit also has to be given to her co-stars Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig who demonstrate considerable range. Unfortunately the cast is let down by a film that fails in its attempt to illuminate the trials and tribulations of student prostitution but successfully manages to examine the mid-life crisis of a middle class woman. Regardless of Elles numerous imperfections I honestly appreciate its inquisitive craftsmanship.