Featuring: Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Louis-Dominique de Lencqu
Director: Malgoska Szumowska
Writer: Malgoska Szumowska, Tine Byrckel
Perth release date: Thursday 7th February
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: fuzzy)
Journalist Anne (Juliette Binoche) lives in upper-middle-class comfort in a well-appointed Paris apartment with her careerist husband Patrick (Louis-Dominique de Lencquand) and their two sons. She is struggling to accommodate the domestic and professional demands placed on her. Patrick’s boss and his wife are coming for dinner, which she must prepare while tending the kids’ needs (the elder is skipping uni classes and smoking dope) and meeting the deadline on a piece she is writing for ‘Elle’ magazine. Her article is on two young prostitutes, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), whom she has interviewed at length, and as she wrestles with her writing, the content invades her luxurious cocoon, throwing her into disarray and confronting her with doubts about some fundamental aspects of her life and relationships.
The title of the movie offers a clue to its central concerns: elles is the female form of the French pronoun “they”. So, who does “they” refer to here? The obvious answer is the call girl interviewees, Charlotte and Alicja, on society’s outer due to the nature of their work, and therefore Other.
But wait. While Anne, by contrast, is society-approved, a successful professional materially well rewarded for playing by the rules and doing well in her game, she’s the disempowered partner in her marriage. Patrick’s career is prioritised, while she is left, by default, juggling her roles of cook, housekeeper, mother and feature writer. To add insult to injury, Patrick asks (ie: instructs) her to refrain from bringing feminism into any discussions during dinner with his boss.
So, in this supposedly ‘post-feminist’ age, men still rule the roost, and women, whether prostitute or professional, still serve them – is that it?
Well, I dunno. If so, director Malgoska Szumowska undercuts her thesis statement by doing a little serving of her own – this movie contains some smokin’ hot sex scenes featuring a lot of skin, mostly female, certainly designed to titillate, and male-pitched. This is genuine erotica, not ‘soft porn’, and as such is very well executed – a voyeur’s delight. The camera work, featuring a lot of close-ups but none of the narrow anatomical obsession of porn, conveys quite powerfully a sense of the tactile; indeed, the visuals invite all the senses to the party by imaginative proxy.
The movie opens with heavy breathing and arty close-ups in a dark room, and gradually we realise (was that slurping?) that fellatio is being performed on some fortunate chap – rather expertly, going by his writhing and arching and moaning and generally ecstatic facial contortions.
It’s a male-orientated sex scene, but turns out to be a female fantasy – Anne’s. What does it say that she should imagine herself into her fantasy as the provider of pleasure, not the receiver? Again, dunno. And something else: is she seeing herself in the role of prostitute? Is this a turn-on for her? The stuff of her fantasy, after all, derives from her interviews with the call girls, Charlotte and Alicja.
Speaking of which, Alicja is slutty-looking, voluptuous and buxom, whereas Charlotte is a cute, lightly freckled, slight-breasted girl-next-door type. Quite a range of male tastes covered there, then. With one exception, the clientele are middle-aged blokes. So we guys out in viewer land get to ogle two young nubiles getting down and dirty in beautifully shot big screen close-up, while our female counterparts cop an eyeful of old farts with sagging arses and soft bulging bellies wobbling and slapping in coital rhythm while simultaneously, erm, hammering home the cultural acceptability of older man getting it off with younger woman.
All very PIC, really, which goes some way to explaining the dissing this movie has received from so many reviewers. I make a general practice of avoiding reading other reviews before I write mine, but I made an exception in this case because my partner was scathing of the movie, and of me when I ventured an opposing view, and I was curious to see how other critics had responded – splats all over the place on Rotten Tomatoes from a lot of zealously disparaging pursed-lipped reviewers keen, I suspect, to portray themselves as haughtily contemptuous of gratuitous sex and any whiff of dubious gender politics.
Well, they have a point re the latter. The notion that male-dominated power structures render all women prostitutes is insinuated in Elles, and it’s a trite, bleak and extreme take – but is there some truth to it? Well, I’m not buying into that discussion, except to surmise that it ain’t no ideal world we live in, and nothing’s black and white. There has to be freedom to question and delve, even – nay, especially – when the findings may be confrontational and challenging to the prevailing politically correct position.
As for the gratuitous sex, a couple of points. Is it such a cinematic crime, especially when the scenes are so well-executed? Tarantino has made gratuitous violence intrinsic to his brand as a filmmaker, and he’s one of the critics’ darlings – a genius by some reckonings (not mine). Is this genius tag the reason his wallowing in graphic violence is accepted largely without criticism, while Szumowska, a young female director, is condemned for her erotica here? Tell ya what – twixt superior grade gratuitous cinematic violence and sex, gimme the latter.
Point two. Pitching the sex scenes at the male sector of the audience is a bemusing tactic, but there is some reason to Szumowska’s emphasis on the erotic. The erotica in Elles is a Trojan horse which invades Anne’s tidy insular world, setting loose in her a host of confronting doubts about her marriage, her sexuality (what’s left of it, at least), her place in her family, her bourgeois values. Thus, the sex scenes she re-channels as she ponders on her interviews with the call girls have to be portrayed as very powerful and compelling – and they are.
Unfortunately, there is only a hint of the dangerous, squalid, demeaning and surely at times stomach-churning side to the sex industry. It could be argued that Charlotte and Alicja’s sex scenes are re-constructed by Anne and therefore filtered of yuk to serve her fantasies, but nevertheless, the sanitised depictions of sex work are unrealistic and, some might declare, irresponsible.
Ditto, the presentation of the call girls as oh-so-normal. No addictions to feed, nothing desperate about these two. They’ve merely made an economic choice; Charlotte wants fast money to finance a better apartment, and Alicja is a Polish immigrant student whose taste in clothes and the finer things demands more bucks than can be earned waiting tables etc. Hmmm…
OK, there’s no doubt this is a flawed film. But I don’t think it deserves the bollocking it’s received from the majority of critics. For a start, Binoche turns in a fine acting performance, well supported by Demoustier and Kulig. That has to count for something. Not to mention the classy erotica.
Sure, the movie’s messages are mixed, contradictory, fuzzy. It’s difficult to determine where Szumowska is coming from. Is she a feminist or a feminist’s nightmare? Whatever, she is certainly confrontational, a provocateur, and I say a little audience discomfort is not such a bad thing, even if her cause is not clear. And however blurred the political and moral focus of its content, Elles IS thought-provoking. I’ve been grappling with my response to the film for days; indeed, this rambling review is an attempt – and I’m not sure how successful – to synthesise my thoughts into some sort of coherent form. Not many movies motivate me to approach a critical assessment from that angle.
Go and check it out for yourself. Prepare to be confused, confronted, perhaps outraged and angered, but don’t dismiss Elles on the basis of a chorus of critics curiously merciless in their putdowns. It’s worth a look, if only for the discussions it will prompt in its aftermath.
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