Film Review – Elles

Elles (R)

Directed by: Malgorzata Szumowska

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Anais Demoustier

Three and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

By now, it would seem all motives for turning to prostitution have been covered. Unless there is some new psychological drive that is yet to be unearthed, the endless exploration in literature and film has revealed about as much as it possibly can. Money, power, pleasure, survival – all reasons since the dawn of time for people to become prostitutes. Elles doesn’t offer any new insights into the industry as its lead character, the upper class but scrappy journalist Anne (Juliette Binoche, in a sensationally delicate yet raw performance), delves into the lives of a handful of female students who have, for one familiar reason or another, turned to sex for cash to get by. Their motives are conventional and their clients are of the clichéd variety – the shy one, the dominant one, the sensitive one, the kinky one etc. For a time, the article being researched, much like the film itself, threatens to become one of the most dull on the topic. Even the student prostitute angle was covered in the little seen Australian film Careless Love (2012).

Eventually, one may begin to wonder why Anne throws herself so deeply into her research and staunchly defends the article to her editor, and why the film makers have bothered to tackle the topic of prostitution without having anything new to add. But as the layers are peeled back in the final moments of Elles, it becomes clear that that is not entirely the point. While covering familiar territory, which can at times be difficult for the viewer to have to sit through, there is more to this particular story than trying to gain a deeper understanding of this seedy business.

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It is a particularly busy day for Anne in her lush Paris apartment, in which she transcribes her recorded interviews with three young prostitutes while she deals with her bratty teenage son and her unappreciative husband, prepares for a dinner party, wrestles with a broken fridge door, and suffers kitchen related injuries. While trying to piece her article together, between heated conversations with her editor who threatens to cut its length, Anne goes back over her time spent with the young women and the sexual encounters they have described to her.

Throughout the day, Anne’s frazzled behaviour seems, on the surface, to be that of one that cannot deal with these daily pressures but it is in some key final few moments that help us piece it all together. Her edginess goes much deeper. This is as much about a sexually frustrated housewife coming to terms and dealing with her own hidden desires as it is about the ins and outs (pardon the pun) of prostitution. While we have to pay our timely due by witnessing all the interviews and Anne’s graphic imaginings of sessions between the prostitutes and their clients which shed little fresh light, the big reveal brings all the subtle hints of her main dilemma together in one compact but important scene. This is the kind of movie you get much more out of once it has finished and you reflect on it than you do while you are watching it, which may prompt a second viewing. It is getting to Anne’s core that resonates more than the film’s botched attempts to go beneath the surface of the prostitution industry.

Elles has a limited Australian release from February 7.

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