Elles is the first movie I’ve seen that does nothing for the conviction behind its original premise — feminism. On the contrary; it reinforces the notion that women are objects with erotic capital, and concludes with the lead character desperate for regression.
In this fifth feature by Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska, lead character Anne (Juliette Binoche) ultimately conforms to gender roles dictated by society: mother, wife, house wife, cook, journalist, bed partner, fellatio provider.
Set against picturesque Paris; we see Anne living in modern, hectic existence with a husband and two troubled teenagers. When her family departs for work and school in the morning, Anne redirects her energy towards freelance journalism for Elle magazine. She is midway through an article about young women in the sex industry and two students are being anonymously profiled.
Here, Szumowska combines two narrative structures: interview flashbacks where Charlotte and Alicja recount how they fell into sex work; subjective perspective as Anne receives new insights from the girls. As the plot unfolds, we notice a gradual change in Anne’s attitude towards freedom and a glaring difference emerging from her private and professional lives.
Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) is a sweet-natured college student struggling to make ends meet. Unable to cope with part-time work demanding long and irregulars hours; she is drawn to the lucrative income and flexible hours. Alicja (Joanna Kulig) is Polish and a new character to the city; without sufficient funds from her family, securing basic food and lodging are left to her own devices.
Both women are typical victims with sob stories—they fell into the industry out of limited financial means, but emerge sexually liberated and continue out of want. By virtue of proximity; Anne bonds with Alicja and frustrations with her own circumstances grow, culminating in neurotic epiphany during a dinner party at home.
Some controversial films (Irreversible, I Stand Alone) depict graphic scenes because they are designed to enhance complexity in their narratives, Elles isn’t one of them. Its original synopsis promises women’s empowerment, freedom and liberation—but aesthetic patterns say otherwise. There are explicit imageries depicting sexual encounters by Charlotte and Alicjia executed without coherence to the emphasis on social-emotional variables claimed by Szumowska.
Sexual revolution occurred more than fifty years ago; yet the film is set in one of the most developed cities among metropolitan states. Granted things are still plausible within the context of helpless migrants—it speaks for the level of reality Elles operates on. That characterizations reinforce not only stereotypes, but misinformation surrounding the “bleak and reluctant lives” of sex workers further disconnects to the point of retrogression.
The range of “secrets” explored in Elles are extraordinarily obvious, narrow and misdirected; honest performances are also stymied by distasteful direction. Joseph Kosma’s Les feuilles mortes (literally “The Dead Leaves”) may have you humming away in irony when the credits finally begin to roll.
LANGUAGE IN FRENCH & POLISH