Leaves you with an empty feeling
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Apr. 27, 2012
There's plenty of sex in "Elles," a movie about a Parisian journalist named Anne (Juliette Binoche) who's interviewing a pair of young prostitutes for a magazine article.
As you might expect, the sex scenes are often humiliating and tawdry, with one exception.
Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) - a 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.
As for intimacy and true human connection, the only scene showing any of that comes when Anne gets drunk during an interview with her other young subject, the Polish exchange student Alicja (Joanna Kulig), until both women end up giggling and dancing together like teenage BFFs at a slumber party.
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.
At another point, just in case you missed it, 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. Such is the female condition, which seems to have changed little since cave man days.
The acting by Binoche and her two young co-stars is more nuanced than the film deserves. They bring a rich expressiveness and sense of complex inner life to their characters. It's the movie - and its placard-sized message - that is more two-dimensional.
Contains sexual situations and dialogue, nudity, obscenity and a brief drug reference.