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In spite of an original storyline and the amazing talent of Juliette Binoche, Elles fails to deliver on a perceived promise to deconstruct, re-define, or re-imagine notions of female sexuality. Instead, Malgorzata Szumowska’s fourth feature film spends a good deal of time earning its NC-17 rating, beginning with an opening close-up sure to make most audience members squirm. Though, granted, the nude body in all its glory and sexual fury may be perfectly acceptable in a film about student prostitutes, it is the hand of the director—the appendage that appears most excessively—that makes the film vulgar. In attempting to proclaim her radical feminist (or anti-feminist) ideas, Szumowska only succeeds in creating a weak film, abundant in themes, but disappointing in execution.

Anne (Binoche), a well-to-do journalist for Elles magazine, is writing a story on girls in Paris who put themselves through school working as prostitutes. The two young women, Charlotte and Alicja (played by newcomers, Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) share a similar story, but ultimately their individual narratives are unique, which makes the arc of the film a bit more compelling. Their most significant commonality is an impoverished upbringing, although Parisian poverty and public housing looks far less desolate than the American version.

An emphasis is placed on the class issue, as the girls are desperate to become like Anne (in terms of position), and Anne is intrigued by the notion of young, seemingly intelligent girls working (with few qualms) in the sex industry. There is an attempt to draw a parallel between the two worlds (where all of the women in Elles are “prostitutes” in one way or another), but it is unconvincing. Somehow, being hounded by your editor is just not the same as being treated as a human urinal, no matter how much this film (or its agenda) wants it to be.

Still, the actors in Elles deliver fine performances. Binoche does not disappoint—Anne’s emotional highs and lows are physically evident in every scene. The young women are equally authentic, where others might have gone over the top. And the men who played the tricks were convincing, humorous, and eerily normal in their presentations. In one brilliant scene, Anne (who has spent the day preparing an extravagant dinner, à la the protagonist of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway) sees their visages in the faces of her guests. Any one of these men, she seems to think, could be the type. Sadly, the moment is one of few that are humorous and thoughtful, and most of the good acting is lost in a film with far too many slow-moving scenes (juxtaposed against rather well-done scenes d’amour). (There’s also a paucity of music or sound, which might have set a stronger tone.)

Elles’s message about womanhood is prototypically tragic. In the end, the viewer pities the young girls and the older woman, none of whom find an authentic position of agency. Viewers are shown more of the same: upper-class married white couples who do not have sex together, and young, poor girls (with whom upper-class white women are fascinated) who have sex with everyone (usually for financial gain). As an attempt to remove the stigma from female prostitution, Elles fails. And as an attempt to tell the story of these girls, it also fails. Mixing an agenda with a fictional story is difficult to pull off successfully. Malgorzata Szumowska’s agenda—fascinating as it is—would have actually been far more visible had it been properly and artfully concealed by the story itself.

Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
Writer: Malgorzata Szumowska, Tine Byrckel
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig
Release Date: Apr. 27, 2012