Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Juliette Binoche.

Lighter moments … Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Juliette Binoche. Photo: Supplied

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Reader rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars (56 votes)

ELLES
Directed by Malgoska Szumowska
Written by Tine Byrckel
Rated R, 96 minutes
Palace Verona and Dendy Newtown

Reviewer's rating: 3/5 stars 

STARTING with oral sex makes a certain statement. It is dimly lit, but few things look like that. The surprise is that it is a reverie. Juliette Binoche, sitting at a computer, listens to a recording of a young Parisian student talking about being a prostitute. Anne (Binoche) has been working all night as her family erupts in morning chaos.

Husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is always on the phone. Older boy Florent (Francois Civil), about 17, is incapable of dropping his smirk, while younger brother Stephane (Pablo Beugnet), about 10, is addicted to video games. Calm descends as they leave the large and tastefully decorated apartment in Paris. Anne returns to her tape recordings.

She is writing for Elle magazine about women who fund study through prostitution. As a privileged woman she finds the subject both fascinating and repugnant. I could describe the film the same way, although that might be too harsh.

It is a severe experience. Even the sex, though frequent, is no fun, even when it appears meant to be. Some of it is shot and lit to be erotic, but there's little that's joyful, whether sex or family life. Written by Danish psychoanalyst and screenwriter Tine Byrckel, produced by French producer of Danish origin Marianne Slot, directed by rising star of Polish cinema Malgoska Szumowska, Elles attempts to be open-minded. This is difficult in a film in which nothing is under-thought.

Feminist filmmakers used to treat prostitution with unflinching and unsentimental condemnation, as in Marleen Gorris's Broken Mirrors (1984). It was exploitation, pure and simple. Things have changed, both in feminism and film. Some now argue that a woman selling her body is an expression of ultimate freedom. Both of the women Anne interviews stop short of theorising, but both have entered the business by choice. With many ellipses in time, the script lines up three lives for comparison.

Charlotte, who calls herself Lola (Anais Demoustier), can't get far enough away from her working-class family. When she expresses disgust, Anne thinks it's about the sex, but no. It's ''the smell of housing projects'' that disgusts her. Prostitution lets her buy what she wants. She enjoys some of the sex too.

Alicja (Joanna Kulig) has less choice. She arrives from Poland, penniless after her bag has been stolen. Another student at enrolment picks her up and offers her a bed - his. When Anne meets her some months later, Alicja has her own stylish apartment and no regrets. She forces Anne to drink vodka, stripping away the older woman's superiority.

If the film were just an honest voyage into these lives it might have become something engrossing and dramatic. Instead, it becomes accusatory, with the barrenness of Anne's life contrasted with the young prostitutes. Are you so different, the younger women imply, running around after the men in your family, making them dinner, sexually ignored and invisible? As her day progresses, Anne begins to agree. Her life a lie, her marriage a charade. What to do but masturbate on the bathroom floor?

Some might grant this comparison, but it's a rocky shore. Are the women's lives to be evaluated on the sex? Is Anne to be pitied for being middle-class, the younger two free to be completely materialistic? Is prostitution always this glamorous and liberating?

Well no. In the original cut, Lola was raped with a wine bottle and one of Alicja's clients urinated on her before he sang her a love song. Those moments are gone from the film showing here, 11 seconds cut by the film-makers in response to censorship regimes around the world. The Australian distributor, Palace Films, chose to submit this cut version but still received an R-rating. The cuts effectively blunt the film's argument by reducing the sexual violence the prostitutes endure, but it's hard to blame the distributor. Fighting a censorship rating here costs thousands of dollars.

Twitter: @ptbyrnes