Films that tend to include a bit of explicit sexual material while attempting to not be entirely sensationalist are a hit and miss proposition among audiences because they largely include too much of one and not enough of the other. An interesting entry into the foray is Elles, a French film starring an attractive Oscar winning actress.
Said actress is Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), who plays Anne, a wife, mother and journalist for the French version of Elle magazine. Her most recent article focuses generally on French prostitution, but specifically on two young women. Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) is a young middle class girl who lives with her parents and has a boyfriend, though no one appears to know what she is doing. The other girl is Alicja (Joanna Kulig), an immigrant from Poland who found herself in France short of money and took to selling herself for money easily and without concern. As Anne listens to and spends time with the women, Anne begins to reevaluate her sexual values and her worth within her family to her husband, in a story co-written by Tine Byrckel and Malgorzata Szumowska, the latter of whom directed.
One of the surprises within the film are the respective performances of Demoustier and Kulig. They are extremely convincing in their respective positions, and both are extremely brave to do what they do in the movie. Alicja particularly has a montage of sex scenes with an older man, where he has his back to the camera most of the time. Alicja likely experiences, nay endures, similar behavior from other customers, but she disassociates herself from the occasional debasement rather nicely when she speaks with Anne. The circumstance she found herself turning to prostitution was one of slight desperation, and she sees it as a way of making quite a bit of cash. She provides a service that is well-received, she's not harming anyone, what's the big deal? Kulig conveys this well.
Charlotte is a slightly different proposition. In what could be considered a more comfortable situation at home, she seems bored with her current prospects and almost enters prostitution as a way for more excitement. Her commitment to it becomes slightly halfhearted and it impacts her personal life, specifically the relationship with her boyfriend as the film goes on. Demoustier's performance in the role handles this conflict decently and without complaint. Her interactions with Anne are interesting because her mixed dedication to this secret life almost lends itself to Anne's maternal instincts, and God knows she's young enough to be an oldest child for Anne, and their relationship is fascinating to watch.
What of Anne herself? Binoche may be the name that brings more people to this film than expected, and her performance is daring, and her explorations of herself as the film goes on, first as a revelation then again later as almost an act of shame, help to reinforce this. She wants to express herself but is unsure of how to, or whom with. Perhaps the time to do so has passed her by as life as a wife and mother have taken over large chunks of her life, as we see her do familial duties at times during the film. It is fun watching her journey, then as she realizes what the end of it will be, you feel sad for her. It is a performance I have not seen from her before and is good.
There is a flaw in the story and I think it is a big one, and it is the story's lack of skill in going from these interesting perspectives to any message the screenwriters may be communicating. It is hard to dismiss Elles as being flash over substance because I think the inklings of a message are there, it's just that Szumowska and (to a lesser degree) Byrckel do not know how to effectively communicate them. Compared to other films that give you tons of nudity there was the potential for a story to emerge, it just...didn't.
Dismissing Elles as another in a line of films like Basic Instinct, where the sex is abundant and hollow is a little unfair to it because the performances of the female leads in the former are better than most anything in the latter. Unfair or not, it does fall into a larger pile of films where the storytelling does not match the level of the work of the actresses in it. And that's the larger problem with the film that should be noted.
The Blu-ray Disc:
This is the first time I am seeing a Kino Lorber Blu-ray title, and the studio has given the Elles disc an AVC encoded 2.35:1 high-definition presentation that is a little here and there quality wise. The image tends to have some moments of pixilation and artifacts issues, but the image's intentional softness looks clear and the color palette is reproduced nicely. Film grain is present during viewing at times and while the image is not as sharp as desired (and it had its moments of poor moments), the film looked fine generally.
You get a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track and a LPCM two-channel one. I went with the former and was impressed by how well it performed. It did not have a lot to do, but dialogue sounded balanced and consistent and smaller directional effects were present and sounded good. In louder sequences where music is blaring is sounds clear and has some subwoofer engagement to it. Solid sounding material in total.
Not really all that much, just the edited and unedited trailers for the film, along with a stills gallery, and that is it.
Perhaps there is something within Elles that I do not inherently understand to appreciate it more, but I see a film with good acting and bad storytelling, whose characters occasionally get naked because that is what they do. Technically the disc is a bit of a mixed bag and lacks quite a bit on the supplemental side of things. If you are a fan of Binoche I would definitely give this disc a spin for her performance (and be pleasantly surprised by Demoustier and Kulig at the same time), but I would not shell out hard-earned cash to buy this unless you really want to.