Parisian journalist Anne (Juliette Binoche) is writing an article about student prostitution for Elle magazine. As she finishes her article and prepares for a dinner party, memories of her meetings with two students disrupt her ordered world and lead her to question the sexual politics of her own bourgeois life.
Elles takes a potentially sensationalist subject and, instead of judging or attempting to ‘solve’ the issue, sets out to understand and contextualise it. Conventional think-piece trappings are quickly eschewed by dissolving the various time frames together through disorientating edits – minutes in, we cut from Anne’s bright white apartment to a dingy public toilet as she prepares to meet Charlotte (Anais Demoustier). The complex revelations that Anne gathers from the vivacious Charlotte and the sullen, impish Alicja (Joanna Kulig) invade Anne’s consciousness as she returns to domesticity.
Elles seems to see its audience as equivalent to Anne – comfortably middle-class, cultured, and insular within their safe familial walls. The involvement of Binoche, as engagingly intellectual here as ever, helps a great deal in negating any imbalance between this bourgeois world and the more compromised life of the students. Though they are ostensibly filtered through Anne’s perspective, Charlotte and Alicja flourish as vibrant characters in their own right through the strength of the performances and the visual construction of the narrative.
Anne’s interviews with Charlotte and Alicja do proceed with the intention of rooting out the assumedly tragic causes behind their turn to prostitution. The sudden influx of money trapped Charlotte, addicted to it ‘like cigarettes’. For Pole Alicja, her accidental fall into the business provides an adult thrill and emotional solace in a new country; ‘the way he looked at me was actually exciting’, she says of her first client. But the obvious project here, subtly achieved, quickly sees both Anne and the audience become emotionally invested in these girls and their complex decisions. Demoustier and Kulig craft vibrantly different characters, but each demonstrates a mixture of independent fortitude and innocent vulnerability, further confusing our judgment of their chosen profession.
Cinematographer Michal Englert films everything with a cautious sensuality, capturing Anne’s interactions with the girls in comparable lights to their sexual encounters with a variety of clients. The focus on the physicality of these women’s lives quietly suggests that prostitution is not disconnected from their everyday existences, for better or worse. When Charlotte has encounters with men of her own age, there’s deliberate, pointed confusion over which is a client and which her boyfriend. Men who cry desperately onto her shoulder are filmed with a delicacy indistinguishable from those who attempt to humiliate her.
With Elles, director Malgoska Szumowska has delivered a deeply intelligent and thoughtful film. She carefully holds back on confrontation until a measured but majestic finale, allowing the feelings to build inside of both Anne and the audience to strengthen the truthful force of their final implosion. The lack of conclusions will undoubtedly frustrate some viewers, but the film is not seeking to solidify your opinions any more than Anne can influence the decisions of Charlotte and Alicja. Provocative, beautiful, and brave, it’s ultimately the women of Elles that make this unmissable.
Elles is released in cinemas from 20 April 2012.