French actress Juliette Binoche (“Certified Copy”) plays Anne, a Parisian journalist writing an article about female student prostitutes. For the assignment, Anne interviews 2 students: Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), who uses the pseudonym ‘Lola’ with her male clients, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a Polish immigrant attempting to find a better life in France. Anne carries separate interviews with them, probing into their reasons for pursuing such a tabooed profession, unveiling the intimate encounters with their male clientele, and understanding how such experiences have changed their views toward such a licentious lifestyle. But as she grows closer to them, Anne realizes that their world and her own might not be that different.
Hampered by financial difficulty, Charlotte and Alicja found themselves in precarious situations, unable to either find housing or pay for it. After meager-paying jobs and allowance from her mother prove insufficient, Charlotte places a sexual ad on a newspaper and is surprised by the wave of men that respond. And Alicja, frustrated that she cannot find adequate housing, is given the opportunity to live in a decent apartment in exchange for sex.
Expecting to meet wretched young girls with stories of abuse, Anne is shocked to find instead two beautiful and intelligent girls who know more about sex than most women do in their thirties. These young women are beyond the idea of selling their bodies just to meet vital needs. They’ve learned to benefit from their unique positions, awakening their deepest erotic fantasies during intimate encounters with clients. In fact, director Szumowska films the sex scenes so that we’re intent upon the girls and not the men. They’re in control. They gain as much, if not more, than the men. Hence, Anne bumps into a form of prostitution very different from the conventional image that paints them as downtrodden creatures. Charlotte and Alicja prove anything but such women.
The three core actresses are fascinating in their roles. Juliette Binoche continues to take risks with challenging roles like Anne. Her vividness and attention to detail allow her to be intriguing even when she’s just doing laundry or cooking dinner. At first, we see a purposeful woman drawing a line between herself and the girls she’s interviewing. Then, the closeness slowly creep up behind her, until she’s completely possessed by it, interacting with these girls and sharing their emotional frustrations and wounded abandonment. Binoche draws a fascinating portrait of a woman’s deafening realization that her life of housewife duties and an ordinary job might not be that different from the lives of the two girls she’s interviewing.
Demoustier and Kulig are just are nuanced as Binoche. Demoustier proves an actress capable of intriguing her audience and raising questions about female sexuality: she’s so lucid and candid in her sex scenes that we don’t know at what point Charlotte stops thinking about this less as a job and more as pleasurable sexual escapades. And Kulig leaves such an impression on us in her early scenes that even when director Szumowska starts to forget her by the end we still remember her quite vividly. The two young actresses hold their own against the veteran Juliette Binoche, proving a potent acting trio.
The acting in “Elles” is, in fact, so remarkable that it’s easy to overlook the film’s flaws. It’s clear by the end what director Malgorzata Szumowska wants to say about prostitutes: sex is a commodity over which women have a monopoly. They will exchange this commodity for a big wad of cash that can afford them an elegant apartment or expensive clothes. It’s not a novel idea, but it’s told with an interesting angle.
Where the film stumbles is in blurring the line between the two young women’s lives and Anne’s. By film’s end, Anne tells her husband, “I’m not sure they’re whores. [At least] no more than anyone else.” What “Elles” tries to imply is that Anne, just as much as Charlotte and Alicja, compromises her life for money. She does things for her husband that she finds unpleasant: routine household chores, sole responsibility over her children, cooking a fancy dinner for her husband’s boss. It’s not so different than sex, Szumowska argues. But it’s never a convincing point. Anne has her own source of income, so money cannot be a driving factor for her compromises. And her frustrations with marriage life never reach a parallel with Charlotte’s or Alicja’s qualms about prostitution. Szumowska lacked the necessary skills to really drive that argument home.