There’s certainly room for films about the indignities felt by women in even the most ostensibly enlightened modern western societies, but “Elles” tackles the subject in a heavy-handed, self-important fashion that undercuts even the talented Juliette Binoche’s ability to get the point across.
The luminous actress plays Anne, a writer struggling to finish a magazine article on French college students who moonlight as prostitutes while buffeted by the male-centered demands of her own life as wife and mother. Her husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is distant, often absent and—as she discovers—a fan of Internet pornography. She’s struggling to prepare a fine dinner for him, his boss and their associates while her deadline looms. Her older son (Francois Civil) is a weed-smoking slacker who ridicules her complaints about his skipping school, and even the younger one (Pablo Beugnet) seems interested only in his video games. And her elderly, infirm father (Jean-Marie Binoche) demands her attention as well. She’s obviously feeling trapped by an identity subservient to male needs that society has imposed on her.
That feeling has been increasingly intensified by Anne’s relationship with her two student subjects, Charlotte (Anais Demoustier), a middle-class youngster dissatisfied with the conventional, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a Polish immigrant whose straitened circumstances compel her to get into the trade. Anne’s conversations with the two women lead to her growing realization that though her situation appears benign, she’s controlled by male expectations as much as they are—and those expectations can be brutal, resulting in a subjugation as real if it’s socially acceptable as if it’s not.
Writer-director Malgoska Szumowska and her co-scripter Tine Byrckel don’t make this argument in a crisp chronological narrative but by shuffling times and perspective. Their account of Anne’s demanding day is interrupted by flashbacks to her encounters with the students and insertions showing events from the girls’ earlier lives, some involving violent confrontations with their clients. Juxtapositions between the students’ experiences and Anne’s abound, like one that follows Charlotte’s being assaulted with a shot of Anne masturbating. The material is often quite sexually explicit, but that hardly means it’s titillating. To the contrary, it’s unpleasant and depressing.
The picture—which by its very title suggests that it’s saying something revelatory about all women—may have a point. But it doesn’t bring the argument to life in a way that will generate much sympathy or emotional response. It’s a chilly, remote piece that even the committed performances of the three lead actresses can’t transform from cinematic op-ed piece into compelling drama.
So while Binoche is almost always worth watching, this is one of the exceptions to that rule.