Shades of moral grey
Reviewer's rating: 8/10
- Running time
- 99 min
- Malgoska Szumowska
- Screen writer
- Tine Byrckel, Malgorzata Szumowska
- Juliette Binoche, Anais Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing
- OFLC rating
- R 18+
- French, English, Polish
In Elles, the remarkable Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a French magazine journalist whose research for a story on female students supporting themselves through prostitution starts to influence and subtly upend her own life.
The unwritten contracts between men and women - whether as client and escort, or husband and wife - become dangerously defined for this accomplished middle-class professional, as she judges not the young women she interviews but herself.
Like several of her notable Polish predecessors, filmmaker Malgoska Szumowska brings a strange playfulness to the everyday, where domestic rituals and sudden fantasies might coexist with matter-of-fact naturalism. As her camera investigates Anne's apartment, the space is serene and open when Anne is alone but crowded and driven by prickly discord when dominated by the masculine disdain of her husband, Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and their two sons.
For Parisian university students Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), prostitution is a straightforward path - there are no pimps, no violence and they profess to enjoy the feeling of control they hold over their clients' desires and the material rewards. Like Anne, they are seemingly assured and, like Anne, their unease manifests itself only on closer inspection.
Szumowska cuts between scenes quickly and eschews establishing exposition. Anne might ask a question of Charlotte, but the answer comes from Alicja; the former is seen in bed with a young man, and the ardour between them might suggest he is her boyfriend, but then he gets dressed and pays. Even the much-used Allegretto movement from Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, a filmmaker's staple, scores an unexpected encounter.
There are several explicit sex scenes but they are only erotic in tone when they're visualised by Anne and, as the film progresses, Binoche's performance grows increasingly allusive as her character starts to wonder if she is unfulfilled, or simply ignored. It only takes Charlotte's comment about seeing ''bored husbands'' to make Anne reconsider Patrick, and his response is that fallback of all men trying to ward off feminine inquiry: ''You're crazy.''
Anne certainly isn't, but there's a transference between her own life and the circumstances of the two younger women that grows increasingly strong. It culminates in a calmly hallucinatory dinner-party scene that, like so much of Elles, offers not answers but a profound sense of change.
The movie, with Anne as the questioning investigator, is a kind of mystery in which the woman asking questions is pursuing her own truth.
Rated R, 96 minutes, opens Thursday
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Anais Demoustier, Joanna Kulig