Saturday, April 28, 2012

Elles Belles

Sex for money can be so liberating.  At least, that is what some guys always say.  A similar position is staked out in a rather mature new film produced and directed by women and featuring a largely female cast.  Even if they adore Juliette Binoche, this is not a film to watch with your parents.  However, a lot of people saw it with other people’s parents when it screened at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.  Mere days later, Malgoska Szumowska’s Elles (trailer here) has opened its conventional theatrical run in New York.

Anne is a wife, a mother, and a freelance writer.  Her latest story is a confidential profile of student prostitutes.  The assignment came at an awkward period in her marriage, around the same time she busted her husband for a certain kind of net surfing.  As she talks to these confident young women, she becomes obsessed with their explicit stories.  According to Charlotte and Alicja, their approach to sex is healthier, because there is no hypocrisy.  They make a comfortable living exploiting men’s weaknesses of the flesh.  Maybe so, but liberation never looked so demeaning.

Films exploring the jujitsu empowerment of prostitutes are nearly as old as the profession itself.  One obvious comparison is Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, which also screened at Tribeca three years ago.  Yet, that film, starring an actual pornstar, is far more circumspect in what it depicts.  In fact, there is no on-screen sex and only a spot of nudity is to be seen here or there.  It is the emotional entanglements surrounding sex that concern GFE.  In contrast, Elles jumps right into some of the more explicit scenes you will see in a public theater.  It was not tagged with an NC-17 rating for no reason.

Frankly, Soderbergh had the right idea.  Even if Szumowska had a razor sharp analysis of sexual politics to offer, it is hard to get past some of the things she shows the audience.  However, the film’s feminist themes are pretty threadbare and the drama is more frustrating than absorbing.

Normally a bedrock of reliability, even Binche seems a little off here as the journalist.  Her reactions to everything often seem wildly disproportionate to the circumstances at hand.  Still, Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig both bring smart, attractive presences to bear on this material.  For the record, I briefly met Kulig on the way to a post-screening Q&A and she seems like a lovely and engaging person.  I imagine the audience had a lot of questions for her, but whether they had the guts to ask them is another matter entirely.  It is also worth noting, the legendary Krystyna Janda (whose credits include Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble and Ryszard Bugajski’s The Interrogation) also co-stars in the largely thankless role of Alicja’s mother.

Something about Elles simply does not click.  It is not necessarily because of the subject matter, but it makes the lack of depth and cohesion more conspicuous.  Due to the accomplished cast, cineastes should have on their radar, but it is not recommended as a satisfying theater-going experience.  After its high profile Tribeca screenings, Elles is now open in New York at the Angelika Film Center.