While The WIP often carries stories about poor women forced into prostitution by their financial circumstances, the film Elles details a contrasting situation of young college women using prostitution to finance their studies. Elles, directed by Malgoska Szumowska, stars the lovely and talented Juliet Binoche as Anne. As a sophisticated French housewife and mother of two, Anne juggles her journalistic career with her days of picking up after two sons, arranging and cooking a dinner for her husband’s boss, visiting her dad in a hospital and engaging in other self sacrificing duties. We get that Anne is stressed and stretched. Her husband is not too supportive to boot.As a journalist for Elle magazine, Anne is researching and writing a piece on female students who use prostitution for cash to continue their studies while living in nice apartments and wearing good clothing. She interviews two coeds played by Anais Demoustier and JoAnna Kulig and investigates their secret lives. In a series of flashbacks, we learn about their clients (mostly middle aged married men who for the most part are considered sexually safe), see a lot of explicit sex, and watch Anne move from a sense of disapproval of these women’s choices to a degree of envy for their independence and adventure.
As a film nothing quite works. The photography is often beautiful and so is Binoche. The subject is controversial, but its development is weak and I found it difficult to know where I was as the scenes follow some stream of consciousness in Anne’s mind. The filmmaker wants to shake-up middle class sensibilities but offers us clichés instead of authenticity. Who are these young women? Are they addicted to sex and have found a profitable way to indulge their habit? Do they feel at all degraded by their roles as prostitutes? In one scene Alicja, Jo Anna Kulig’s character, is urinated on but she is so stoned she does not seem to mind. Are these young women really in control? Will they go on to become lawyers, journalists, wives and mothers much like Anne? And if they are so independent and liberated, why do they keep their work so secret?
I think Szumowska wants us to ask who is being exploited. Is it the middle class housewife who is a “slave “ to her family and is asked by her husband not to discuss her feminist views at dinner with the boss or the young women trying to climb the social ladder through education and sex for sale? It is all a bit too facile.
As we deplore the world wide practice of young girls forced into prostitution against their wills, we are not sure we feel much better about young women so in need of comfortable life styles and adventure that they sell their bodies for money.
2012, France/Poland/Germany, 96 minutes
Toronto International Film Festival
Berlin International Film Festival
Tribeca Film Festival
The 11th Annual Tribeca Film Festival is happening now in New York City. Barbara Castro, a regular attendee of the festival, writes this year for The WIP.