FFF: Elles – A day in the life of journalistic integrity.

I’m not sure why I rally liked this film.

I’ve read around several of the reviews and mostly the film gets panned and I have to agree with all of the reasons provided.

I think, in the end however, Juliette Binoche is just so good – so good- over and over, that watching her is a think I can do for 96 minutes.  And she is the central character of the film.

It’s hard to tell you what Elles is about. the blurb says this:

This likely-to-be controversial, adults-only drama stars the luminous Juliette Binoche in her boldest role to date, as a journalist whose personal life choices are put to the test when she uncovers some uncomfortable home truths.

Mother of two Anne (Binoche), a journalist for French Elle, leads a perfectly bourgeois life in Paris juggling family, work and leisure. Her research for an article on student prostitution cracks this serenity, as she meets Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a Polish student whose persona is as troubling as it is seductive, and Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), a somewhat reserved French woman who seems to exercise her trade as part of a bitter social struggle.

Little by little, the stories of the two young women emerge. Where Anne expected to find poverty and distress, she instead discovers a silent determination, and is forced to question her most intimate convictions about money, family and sex.

I guess according to the above, the girls are meant to be powerful and in contrrol of their prostitution, and Anne is supposed to be a confronted feminist.

But the film is not that simple at any point.  Małgorzata Szumowska is a competent film maker.  She is a graduate of from the celebrated film college in Łódź, which boasts such alumni as Andrzej WajdaRoman Polański or Krzysztof Kieślowski.  As a student, Szumowska made a short which was ranked 14th in the history of Łódź Film School Cisza (Silence) is a short documentary film in which Szumowska tried to capture a simple life of a Polish rural family.  She has made several films that have been praised for their subtlety and beauty.

I think it is a mistake to take Elles purely at face value. There are some serious problems with the blurb above.  For example all the clients are attractive older men. Married men.  In fact, they are the men ‘wives’ fear are seeing prostitutes  – not the men we are told see prostitutes. Where are the violent men, the mentally and physically disabled, the unlovable? I don’t know a single thing about university prostitution.  Maybe every trick is like Richard Geer and maybe the reality is like Pretty Woman.

However there is something not quite right about these girls, Alicja in particular. They are troubled. They have dysfunctional relationships with family and lovers. They do both come across as very unhappy confused young women – not the empowered alive souls the blurb seems to indicate.

Then there is Anne.  The film follows her around for most of her day – or two days – that it takes to write the article. The blurb implies she re-thinks her feminist position, but I didn’t get that message from the film at all. In fact, her position is strengthened – revealed by an argument she has with her husband toward the end, where she accuses him of assuming all women are whores. Anne’s responses are very complex. None are resolved. The film’s climax is a shocking scene between her and her husband that is deeply sad and very troubling.

More than prostitution, this is a film about separation, loneliness, desire and fear. Every character in the film is profoundly alone. Seen from the perspective of post-modern alienation, this becomes an enigmatic film, with Juliette Binoche giving an excellent performance of the woman surrounded by her loved ones, furiously fulfilling the obligations that imply love, while feeling completely alienated from all those she loves. But she is not the only one. the young women who are prostitutes are deeply alone, bad relationships, lives spinning out of control, also playing the part of the lover while experiencing complete alone-ness.  Anne is alone in a sterile sexless world. The girls are alone in a sterile sex-filled world.

Most of the men who visit the prostitutes in the film suffer from a projection of the Madonna Whore complex upon their wives and the prostitutes they visit. they are married, but the whores are “dirty bitches”. What is interesting is the experience Anne has of her own sexuality. She is woken through the overt sexual conversations she has with the younger women. And yet, she is also closed down, as if the overt acceptance of the prostitution is somehow a loss of the mystery and the beauty of sex.  And yet she is alone. She discovers pornography on her husbands computer and her sons.  Everyone having sex alone.

There is no redemption to be found here, and no answers – easy or otherwise. This film asks more questions than it answers.  Despite the poor reviews, I enjoyed it very much.  I think Małgorzata Szumowska (who also co-wrote the film) has been short-changed here. There are come clichés (Anne serves the same dinner to her husbands boss that the prostitute had with her client) but in terms of dealing with a complex subject, the film handles it well.  I enjoyed it a great deal.