In the end, aren't we all prostitutes anyway? So argues Malgoska Szumowska's Elles, a film about two beautiful young prostitutes in contemporary Paris who sell their bodies by choice in order to afford posh, consumerist lifestyles. From the co-producer of Lars von Trier's Antichrist comes another challenging and occasionally violent story of sexual dynamics, though Elles comes armed with a clear message: Life is transactional, sex is no different, and everything that works to separate the two is rooted in hypocrisy and self-deception. Salacious but not particularly erotic, Elles wraps its treatise around the story of a successful mother and journalist (Juliette Binoche) who begins doing research on a think-piece about teenage escorts, only to find her own lifestyle and desires challenged by the process. It's a small and confined little film, but Szumowska's pointed direction, her immaculate cast and the suggestive cinematography of Michal Englart help the movie to feel as large as its ideas. Nevertheless, films featuring clinical nudity and/or a stellar Juliette Binoche performance are hardly a rare event anymore, and Elles is unlikely to earn the critical attention required to attract an audience beyond the arthouse.
Anne (Binoche) is a modern woman, a wild creature defined by the trappings of a world to which she submits even as it ultimately eludes her understanding. She lives and works in the clean, stainless, Parisian apartment she shares with her husband and their two sons. The film's opening sequence follows Anne through a routinely frenzied morning in her home, watching as she embraces a conservative maternal role in order to prepare her three boys for their respective days. He knows that Anne is working on a story about sex workers, but he can't fathom the idea that their (dispassionately illustrated) illicit encounters will give Anne any ideas—she's a mother, and the assumption is that that her cultural role has tamed her womanly nature.
The film's fractured structure underscores the extent to which Anne feels pulled in several different directions—Szumowska interjects the scenes with the two young prostitutes in such a way that seeing Anne working in her home or preparing dinner in her kitchen becomes a pointedly reorienting device. The first girl she interviews is Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), a cute, wide-eyed thing who shocks Anne with her deliberately demure stories about unprotected oral sex (Szumowska ramps up the ick factor later, once she's ensured that her audience feels more sophisticated than her heroine). The other girl is a wilder case, a Polish tomboy named Alicja (Joanna Kulig) whose pimply face and pubescent awe make the reveal of her significant breasts feel like something of a sneak attack.
Anne can't deny that the prostitutes seem happy, though she's unsure if they should be. The girls appear to be self-employed (if memory serves, there isn't a single mention of the word "pimp")—they make their own hours, and those hours often last only minutes. What's more important than the notion that the girls aren't living a very terrible life, is the notion that they're not leading a very different life, Szumowska arguing that we all do unpleasant things in exchange for the things we want. Every relationship is transactional, it's how the system works, and context is the only tool we have to keep straight. Szumowska argues that a girl is seen as a model when she sells a product with her body, but a whore when she sells her body for that same product, a point she illustrates by denying the audience certain bits of information. We're told, for example, that Charlotte has a boyfriend, but when Szumowska joins sexual encounters in progress, we can't know if she's on the clock or simply being intimate with her partner.
Szumowska hopes to reveal that human behavior is never as simple as social dynamics wish it were, but Anne is such a bourgeois everywoman that each transgressive revelation threatens to blow her world apart. Binoche is one of the best actresses of hers or any generation, she could sell a tripod to Gary Ross, but the endless nuance of her expression can't entirely bury the script's inherent didacticism. Elles wants to lift the veil off sexuality in the modern world, while at the same time flattering its audience for the truths that it already finds self-evident. It's like Jeanne Dielman by way of Alan Ball (you should be shuddering), so determined to open your eyes that it doesn't offer anything to see.
Soon after we meet Anne, she's instructed by her husband to prepare a dinner for a gathering that night—a standard sitcom event during which her husband will host his boss—and throughout the film Szumowska returns to images of Anne sublimating her sexual breakthroughs into the cooking process. It's all a bit hard to stomach, climaxing with Anne cracking some enormous oysters, running her hands through the glistening tissue inside, and then smelling her fingers. The transparency of these Pleasantville moments doesn't jive with the aloof horrors of the young girls' paid encounters, the two modes clashing so violently as to paint a world where nothing is hidden from sight, and self-discovery is impossible because everything is self-evident. The film's bravura final sequence and rattling end credits go a long way towards justifying the experience, but Szumowska's killer instinct arrives just in time to beautifully frame an argument that no longer seems worth having.
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
Screenwriter: Malgorzata Szumowska, Tine Byrckel
Producer: Marianne Slot
Genre: Drama; French-, and Polish-languages, subtitled
Rating: NC-17 for explicit sexual content.
Running time: 99 min.
Release date: April 27 ltd.