From Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, Elles (2011) stars the self-challenging and emblematic French actress Juliette Binoche as Anne, a bourgeoisie-smothered feminist who works as a journalist for a women’s magazine. Unfortunately, this publication is the type that subconsciously vilifies and objectifies females, informing them that both material and financial gain is key to achieving success and acceptance.
In tow are her work-absorbed husband and two detached and antisocial sons. Their achingly routine life is everything Anne seeks to escape, ergo her head-first dive into research for her latest commission – an article on young student prostitution in Paris. Suddenly, Anne’s life becomes less clinical, and the sordid desires she had been suppressing for so long finally come to surface. The stories of both young call girls she meets (Anaïs Demoustier’s Charlotte and Joanna Kulig’s Alicja) becomes secondary next to our heroine’s plight – and yet the on-screen sex with various clients is gratuitous and constant.
It’s hard to pinpoint what such explicit insight into the characters’ uncomfortable liaisons is aiming to ascertain. Some of the dialogue shared between the characters in Elles is undeniably unnerving – the girls are keen to keep reminding us of how ‘normal men, our husbands’ buy into the sex industry, and all in all seems a depressing and skewed account of an ardent feminist’s rally against the male species. Save for Charlotte’s boyfriend’s affectionate and concerned nature (and even he is cold when he receives his girlfriend’s sexual rebuttals), the men in this film are infatuated with their work, their money, and the young bodies these symbols of status can attract; equally, Szumowska seems passionate with examining something she doesn’t wish to seek a personal conclusion for.
Elles seeks to highlight the strength of morality and female control that takes place in prostitution – that a woman knows the uses of her body and can utilise them to manipulate the opposite sex in order to gain both power and finances. Yet the women here are only governed and upset by their actions – hardly empowering in the slightest. Interesting, however, is the seduction Anne herself succumbs to, surprising with sporadic bodily urges of an unusual (and non-heterosexual) nature.
Elles may well leave you feeling contemplative and lost in thought – though it’s hard to determine quite why that’s the case. Binoche’s Anne ultimately suffers a devastating rejection from her husband and her journey, carefully executed and inspiring up until this point, comes to a sudden end, showing the family together eating breakfast in a depressing tableau depicting a return to her apparently stagnant life – and the film’s initial equilibrium.