Director: Malgoska Szumowska
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Joanna Kulig, Anais Demoustier, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Pablo Beugnet, Arthur Moncla
Billed as “a provocative exploration of female sexuality,” NC-17-rated French import “Elles” is a self-satisfied, ponderous drama that can’t be saved by a characteristically strong and nuanced performance from star Juliette Binoche. A would-be character study desperately in search of interesting characters, director Malgoska Szumowska’s film comes across as a plodding and muddled adaptation of a didactic women’s studies term paper.
Binoche stars as Anne, a French magazine journalist in the finishing stages of an article on young women ostensibly subsidizing their higher educations through prostitution. As Anne copes with her looming deadline, an impending dinner party for the boss of her husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, of “Father of My Children”), and disappointing truancy notices regarding the pair’s eldest son Florent (Pablo Beugnet), an affable and undermotivated stoner, “Elles” flashes back upon her interviews with French-born Lola (Anais Demoustier) and Polish exchange student Alicja (Joanna Kulig).
Pledging confidentiality, Anne gets the girls to open up about their work, and what led them to the sex-for-money trade. Lola, whose real name is Charlotte, describes some of the tension it creates in the relationship with her boyfriend Thomas (Arthur Moncla), while confessing that one can “get used to the money.” Both girls also note the level of organization their job requires. Some of their reminiscences with Anne are rendered in flashback, which (heavily) breathes erotic life into their descriptions.
Co-written by Tine Byrckel and director Szumowska, “Elles” aims as much for a stirring of the head as the loins, if not more so. It asks viewers to consider longing and desire, as well as fantasy. It’s not merely that the movie’s air-quote insights are reductive (all women are whores, and men leering perverts), however, it’s that they’re revealed and connected to Anne in such an on-the-nose fashion.
With the inclusion of small, quiet scenes of the sort that find Anne checking her weight on a bathroom scale, “Elles” aims to dig into fading female sexuality/beauty, and such a state’s impact on longstanding relationships. Yet its deductions are thin. Plenty of films — including, recently, Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe” and even the flawed “Special Treatment,” starring Isabelle Huppert — have delved into the awakened or transmogrified desires of forty-plus women, with both much more perspicacity and woozy, artful hold. “Elles” seems to view its frank, borderline-explicit depictions of sexual encounters as the sizzle to its steak, but given how thin its characterizations are, it unfortunately just serves as a marking of time.
Possessing a lively energy and flitting eyes, Binoche richly imbues Anne with the sort of complex interior life at which the script only hints. In addition to the requisite masturbation scene, a drunken dinner sequence between Anne and Alicja marks Binoche as perhaps the only actress in recent memory brave enough to spit up chewed food in deranged delirium. A shame, then, that “Elles” doesn’t serve as a better vehicle for her efforts, but instead builds to a ridiculous climax of all-caps Artistic Statement.
Written by: Brent Simon