Mostly Flaccid, by Jack Fleischer
On the surface Elles is a sexy French film following a Parisian journalist exploring the world of student prostitutes. It comes with a racy NC-17 rating, Juliette Binoche, and an implied lesbian subplot. In other words it’s a movie designed to give you a pants boner and a brain boner all at the same time. At the risk of sounding base and immature, I’d say this movie only comes in at half a chubby.
“Anne” (Juliette Binoche) is writing an article about student prostitution. Her article revolves around interviews with two women, a foreign student named “Alicja” (Joanna Kulig) and another coed, “Charlotte” (Anaïs Demoustier). For both women their higher education is dependant on the kind of income, that comes in, through coming. As Anne goes down the rabbit hole, she starts to question her life. Is what they do so bad, and is what she does so good?
Regardless of the rest of the film, I can comfortably say that the acting is pretty amazing. Binoche chews the scenery a tad, but she does it with an extended pinky, and remains enchanting. I would also be surprised if we in the western world don’t see more of Polish actress Joanna Kulig (who has a tiny roll in the upcoming film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters). Demoustier is also very good, as are Anne’s kids, and several of the “johns” that hire these young women.
This film seems designed to tell a specific story. The characters behave a certain way because that’s how they are supposed to. There are themes of closeness, class, power, and perhaps even some feminist identity theory. Yet, at the risk of seeming insensitive, I don’t know why I should care.
The call girls seem determined to show Anne that it’s not a bad life. In fact it’s often the actions of the “straights” that put them in these positions. Not every client relationship seems pleasant, but director/co-writer Malgorzata Szumowska seems intent on showing us through Anne that these relationships have more in common with the average woman’s home life than we might at first concede.
But while the film demonstrates a contrary idea, it doesn’t make much of an attempt to support its thesis. It asks me to concede that prostitution isn’t so bad, and that having a high paying job as a journalist in a beautiful apartment with distracted kids, and boorish (possibly cheating) husband so great. While this may be true, these glimpses don’t demonstrate the idea with any voracity. I agree that people are often trapped, by their trappings, and that “security” is merely a matter of perception … but so what? Where is the reality this artist creation is supposed to be showing us? Elles never tries to draw me in. Some (not all) of the sex scenes even seem more lurid than purposeful.
Of course I may be completely missing the point. If so, is the intended point any clearer, or presented with better evidence? I’m willing to listen, but my honest first impression is that this film rings hollow.
Yes, the women here are beautiful, and there are some beautiful aspects to this film. But, just like the idea that a beautiful woman isn’t necessarily attractive, just because a story feels true, it doesn’t necessarily feel real.