You need only cast your mind back as far as Paweł Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth (2011) to find a French/Polish collaboration comparable to Elles (2011), the latest film from director Malgoska Szumowska. Replacing Kristin Scott Thomas as the French star in this instance is the award-winning Juliette Binoche, who plays a tireless investigative journalist delving into the Parisian sex trade. Yet whilst Pawlikowski’s flawed effort had an intriguing in-line, Elles feels far too light and inconsequential to truly register. Binoche plays affluent writer Anne, who has immersed herself in research for an upcoming Elles exposé into student prostitution in the French capital.
Anne’s two subjects of choice are Polish migrant Alicja (Joanna Kulig) and the angelic – but not so innocent – Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), who regale Anne with a series of sexual anecdotes seemingly lifted from Belle de Jour (1967). However, as Anne becomes further entangled with the lives of these two young women, she begins to readdress her initial prejudices and re-evaluate her own womanly worth. Szumowska’s film has solid conceptual foundations but sadly fails to tell us anything new or remarkable about the lives of Paris’ prostitutes. The revelation that some women actually enjoy having sex with relative strangers – particularly when a transaction is involved – has been explored countless times before, yet Binoche’s unconvincing journo seems perfectly happy with retreading over old ground.
When it comes, Anne’s realisation that her own marital dysfunction isn’t perhaps preferable to the love lives of her chosen subjects is neither enlightening, nor in any way profound. The film’s overall narrative may huff and puff with little to show for its efforts, a number of scenes in Elles do manage to evoke the odd reaction. There’s something extremely Buñuelian about witnessing a naked, ageing gentleman serenade his buxom lover whilst at the same time urinating over her – with a certain joie de vivre remarkably inherent in such a taboo activity. Szumowska’s film is littered with such telling moments, but these are spread far too thinly to ever prolong the audience’s engagement. Whilst Elles steers clear of being truly disastrous, the considerable talents of Binoche are undoubtedly squandered by this grossly underdeveloped project. The aforementioned Belle de Jour arguably remains the high watermark for intelligent film discourse into this oldest of professions, and in such company, Szumowska’s can’t help but whither and wilt.