Anne (Juliet Binoche) is a writer for Elle magazine and is researching a story about young university students who support themselves by prostitution. Directed and co-written by Polish director, Małgorzata Szumowska, Elles features the radiantly expressive Binoche as the lead, Anne, in a captivating performance, reminding the viewer of just how extraordinary an actor she is.
Hand held camera shots and close-ups of the women’s faces creates intimacy between Anne and her subjects, and between us and the story, honing in on the women’s expressions as Anne finds out more about the lives of Charlotte (Anais Demoustrier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig) while starting to silently interview herself. The filming style begins wide and grows closer as she grows closer to her subjects. Colours symbolise the emotional tenor of the various scenes: where Anne is talking to the young women and the scenes when they’re with their clients are warm and muted with beautiful painterly compositions. In contrast, scenes taking place in Anne’s home are often cool and look staged, especially those in her lounge room – the effect of a tripod shot rather than hand held camera work.
One scene in a grungy unisex toilet just before Anne first meets Charlotte gives us a sense that this is how Anne expects Charlotte’s life to look yet it turns out not to be so, due to Charlotte’s determination to better herself. Some amusingly ironic dialogue re lingering smells takes place here – we think Charlotte means the stink of paid-for sex but no, she’s referring to the stink of life in the housing estates she’s escaped from. The film nods to a class consciousness, prevalent in French society yet generally talked about only in terms of racism. It takes an outsider perhaps to allude so subtlely to this through the dialogue between Anne and the French girl rather than with her Polish subject. Both girls are enjoying richer lives and certainly more erotically inspiring experiences than is Anne, whose husband isn’t interested in her sexually. Instead, Anne’s world finds her under pressure to behave appropriately for her husband’s boss at a dinner party in their home, all the while juggling motherhood, responsibility for running the home, deadlines and the emotional deprivation of her marriage. A sticking fridge door works symbolically as reference to the stasis in her family life.
There’s real satisfaction for the viewer in joining the dots in Elles. A scene where Alicja’s mother comes to visit has you wondering at first who she might be. One scene has Charlotte with a young man who at first we think is her boyfriend but turns out to be a client. A night shot of Anne walking has her going in and out of focus, exactly what is happening for her psychologically. Music in the film is used incidentally, we hear what we hear because a character has put on a CD or someone is playing guitar and singing. Musical choices fit the mood perfectly at all times. Watch out for the dinner party scene, a highlight which I won’t describe as it’s such a delight and a spoiler is uncalled for. The device used here, of fantasy leaking into the ‘real life’ proceedings, is one frequently used in stylish TV series such as Mad Men, True Blood and Dexter.
Elles is a quiet triumph for all concerned, finishing on an ambigous yet hopeful note.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
directed by Małgorzata Szumowska
cast includes Juliet Binoche, Anais Demoustrier and Joanna Kulig
running time 94 minutes
distribution: Madman Films