Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
Juliette Binoche is one of those actors who, yes, gets better looking with age, but there's more to it than that--she also gets more interesting, both to look at and to watch work. The idea of lines on one's face betraying "character" may be a cliché, but it feels true with her; she's still achingly beautiful, but those lines give the sense of a life lived, and she carries that air in her acting, which has never been more economical or direct. She stars in Malgorzata Szumowska's Elles, a film which tells a story that is not difficult to predict, but none of what Binoche does seems predetermined; her spontaneity infects the film, and both are better for it.
Binoche plays Anne, a wife, mother, and freelance writer. She's working on a big magazine piece about French students who supplement their income by working as escorts, and (no surprise) she finds herself fascinated by her two key subjects, Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig). Szumowska (who also penned the script, with Tine Byrckel) provides glimpses at the lives led by the two young women; some of their scenes reference stories told to Anne, some are moments that they've chosen not to share, but all thankfully do away the more tiresome of the "flashback" conventions (voice-over, visual cues, etc.). The filmmakers let the audience do the work, and as a result, the film functions in an immediate, present tense that only sorts itself out later in the film.
Anne's husband and children are seen briefly at the beginning of the film, but they disappear (and are barely even mentioned) throughout the middle sections; they're not a consideration in this compartment of her life. She has trouble reconciling the daily existence of these young prostitutes with her own, and in interviewing them, she must deal with her own inner struggle, the fight to neither judge nor show her shock--if she is in fact shocked, and not just a touch aroused herself. "The way he looked at me was exciting," Alicja tells her, after one particularly eye-widening confession. "Don't you like that?" Anne's response is immediate: "We're not here to talk about me."
Elles has been branded with an NC-17 by the MPAA for its American release, and it's not hard to see why; the sex is graphic, sometimes shockingly so, but it's not sensationalistic. If anything, the sexuality is matter-of-fact: this is what people (or at least these people) do. In at least the film's early scenes, Szumowska shows a refreshing openness about the duality of sexual intimacy; she remarkably juxtaposes a scene of stunning debasement with moment of shared and genuine warmth, forcing the audience to question its assumptions about both encounters.
If the script is less than prurient about the practicalities and possibilities of these women's lives, it is also frighteningly open about how quickly the vital sense of power and control they speak of--and rely on--can shift. As such, the later passages come down with a bad case of the sexual sadness that some of Shame's critics disliked so much. It's not tough to anticipate where the threads are going, of course, but it is still fascinating to watch them spin towards inevitability--even if Szumowska bypasses the perfect, intoxicating closing shots, which clasp the film together in a daring and rather remarkable manner, for an additional five or so minutes of unnecessary epilogue. Still, those complaints aside, Elles mostly works, and even if it did not, it would still be worth seeking out for the sheer mastery of the Binoche performance. This is an actor who can make the attempt to get a refrigerator to close into an absorbingly raw, bravura bit of acting, who can make a failed attempt at opening a bottle of wine into an aria. Hers is a brave piece of work, and at its best, Elles matches it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.