sun 25/10/2020

DVD: Elles | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Elles

DVD: Elles

Juliette Binoche puts it on a bit, to dispiriting effect

Elles: talking dirty in the park - but what's the story?

Elles promises much. Małgorzata Szumowska, from Poland, is an engaged, serious film maker. 33 Scenes from Life (2008), which won a Locarno special prize, had an edgy, bohemian authenticity to it, and looked with wry east European melancholy at the darker side of real life. It might be thought that Polish edginess and French sharpness combined with beauty – in the form of Juliette Binoche – would be a winning ticket.

Elles promises much. Małgorzata Szumowska, from Poland, is an engaged, serious film maker. 33 Scenes from Life (2008), which won a Locarno special prize, had an edgy, bohemian authenticity to it, and looked with wry east European melancholy at the darker side of real life. It might be thought that Polish edginess and French sharpness combined with beauty – in the form of Juliette Binoche – would be a winning ticket. Yet with Szumowska’s translation to Paris something’s gone wrong.

First screened at Toronto last year and then Berlin earlier this, with a star of Binoche’s sureness Elles might seem be waving the sophisticated banner of Europe, art and “where-we-are-now”. Anne (Binoche), a journalist for Elle, is writing a piece about two young female sex workers in Paris. She’s befriended them. Broadly, they’d be called prostitutes, but their work is strictly means to an end: funding studies, getting somewhere decent to live, though somehow a note of inauthenticity strikes deep when one of Anne’s subjects, Alicja (Joanna Kulig), asked to bare her breasts to a potential landlord, learns that the reason for this is the price of a room in Paris.

This seems to set the story (and what a tiny one it is) in a kind of cartoony, occupied, war-torn flesh market, not a complex modern west European capital – and the film’s men, losers and abusers, or, in the case of Anne’s bourgeois husband, cold, are without exception loathsome. The sex is utterly dispiriting. Narrative redemption must come from Binoche - apart from anything else she has such an intelligent face! - but Szumowska reduces her at home to a nervy ditz. She frets over her research (the data she’s gathered seems pretty obvious to me), is unable to cope with fridge, saucepan or knife as she makes dinner for hubby’s boss, and masturbates ridiculously towards the end – by which time she’s simply become a cipher for the director’s rather dubious exploration of “female awakening”. Insulting the viewer, more like.

If Binoche wasn’t herself insulted by this unpleasantly manipulative film she’s not the canny actress I’ve often thought her. Perhaps, for reasons unknown, she was doing Szumowska a favour, because Binoche certainly didn’t and doesn’t need it for her career. Szumowska is interesting but Elles is a mistake.

Narrative redemption must come from Binoche - she has such an intelligent face! - but Szumowska reduces her to a ditz

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