The predominant attitude toward on-screen prostitution, let alone sex, is one of grimness. The two young call girls presumably referred to in the title of Elles—a pan-Euro production boasting a Polish filmmaker and a French mega-star—remind us (as though we had forgotten) that this is a cruel and unattractive profession. But there are more sides than that one, and the intriguing thing about Malgorzata Szumowska’s fragmented art-drama is the way it portrays the aspects of hired love that films, particularly films like this, never portray.
Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a bougie reporter for Elle investigating a trend wherein Parisian university students fund their studies through sex. Her “in” to this world are her chats with Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), bubbly and with an unsuspecting boyfriend, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a less amused Polish emigré with an unsuspecting domineering mother. Both remain blasé about their side jobs and, initially it seems, with good cause: Their johns are, with exceptions, mostly sad middle-aged men who we see at their most vulnerable, i.e., mid-orgasm or, in one case, near-orgasm-but-just-not-quite. One charming client even coerces Alicja into a nude sing-a-long.
These graphic passages—which may be products of Anne’s fertile mind, giving life to scenes she knows only through words—are intercut with Anne’s cloistered, moneyed home life. If only these were awarded the same dimension and variety as those of prostitutes. When not discussing fellatio and anal sex, Anne is forever slaving over high-end food and listening to classical music. Her husband is cold, aloof, caring only about dinner parties; her teen son is a hookey-playing pile of indignity; her young son is hooked on video games.
Like prostitution, the life of the bourgeois has a fixed, negative movie type, no matter how deserved that may be. Elles toggles relentlessly between genuine mystery and a reassertion of old stereotypes—between immersing us in the world of prostitution and shooting the rich like ducks in a barrel. We watch as Binoche, albeit in typically fantastic form, realizes the evils of her lifestyle—as though a reporter has never had the opportunity to chat with those who have less than her. As such, Elles is half-fascinating, half-tired bullshit.
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