No doubt it is better to be a young, pretty prostitute for moneyed Parisians than, say, an aging gutter slut in Tampico. But the human complications are not much reduced. Facing those complications in Elles, the mom-wife and journalist Anne (Juliette Binoche) is not pleased that her magazine editor wants to shorten her piece on Parisian whores. The editor doesn’t realize just how deeply into the story Anne has gone.
Anne is career-driven, like her husband, but she also does most of the cooking, cleaning, and caring for the two sons (including a teen cliché who gets high below his Che posters). Middle age nags, domestic sex has turned stale, and the husband’s boss must be impressed at dinner. Mr. Important does not know that the main dish was inspired by Anne’s talk with one of her female subjects (nor that, at the dinner, Anne will fantasize the males as vulnerable johns).
Her interview subjects are Charlotte, played by Anaïs Demoustier as a sly, dreamy student who has taken up paid sex because it beats working in a fast-food outlet, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a desperate émigré from Poland recruited by a boyish pimp. Elles has a Franco-Polish bravura, being directed and partly written by Malgorzata Szumowska. Her Stranger was about a pregnant woman befriended by a harlot. Her documentary background unites with a brain-teasing playfulness reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films (both Poles learned brisk, imaginative tactics from the French New Wave). One “girl” lives in a high-rise district so anonymous it is like a filing cabinet for lost statistics. Both harlots savor the skills and wiles and money of their trade, though one client is a sadist, and the only satisfying sex one woman has is with her boyfriend. Szumowska filmed some sex like soft porn, yet with finesse. Many of the males are clearly porn-jaded, and the women are there to fill mental slots already coded as fantasy.
Elles is not clinical, and its voyeurism is not scornful. When one man cries from shame, the woman shows pity. The clients never completely see the women they use, but for us they are never abstracted. This is largely because Anne pours into her work her pensively honest feelings (feminist, maternal, and erotic). Her sexual imagination is ignited, and that revives her taste for smokes and alcohol. In context, brief passages from Beethoven and Mozart sound a bit pompous, but the use of “Autumn Leaves” is witty.
Maybe no American actress could match Binoche. In some feminine matters it helps to be French. Anne’s brave candor never feels affected, and even her kitchen struggle with a wine cork is sexy and funny. Please, may there not be a raffish, gawking American remake of this satisfyingly European movie.