Elles starts with a gritty close-up of sex, so close that we can’t immediately discern who’s doing what to whom. The scene then cuts to a sunlit domestic scene, where a 40-something woman is getting her two sons and husband out the door to school and work. We’ll see this juxtaposition repeatedly in Malgoska Szumoska’s film, which follows a journalist, Anne (Juliette Binoche), as she interviews two students working as prostitutes. Of course, when a bourgeois journalist investigates the lives of sex workers, we can’t expect that her own life will remain unaltered. Self-reflection and some kind of sexual awakening: these come with the territory. But the film is not so forthcoming in its communication of what this reexamination and awakening actually mean for Anne.
Predictably, Anne has a comfortable, if occasionally harried, family life. Her husband (Louis-Dominique de Lencquesaing) is a reasonably handsome businessman who ushers their sons out the door while speaking into his cell phone. His wife reminds him of errands to run, and they peck each other on the cheeks just before he closes the door behind him. As Anne, still wrapped in her bathrobe, surveys the empty apartment, we see its spaciousness and its tasteful furnishings. Nevertheless, as she stares toward the living room’s distant window, it’s clear she has other things on her mind.
Although the film occurs within the space of about 24 hours, as Anne listens to her recorded interviews with the prostitutes, she’s transported back to her time with them, and the movie makes visible the stories they’ve told her. We see Lola (Anaïs Demoustier), who is almost Rousseauvian in her girlish innocence amid the ostensible smut of her work, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), whose rocky arrival from Poland led her to don stilettos and meet men in their otherwise empty homes.
They explain how they came to prostitution and why they continue, as we are given a veritable tour of the types and subtypes of men they service. While Anne sinks deeper into their world, she is from time to time yanked back to the predictable domesticity of her surroundings: one child returns home from school, the older one is momentarily missing; words are exchanged about dinner preparations and home repairs; her editor calls. Then the voice of Lola or Alicja will seep into those moments, and the present dissolves.
It’s a promising structure for a narrative about one life infiltrated by others: at times it seems whole days have passed while Anne is in the reverie conjured by these recorded voices.
Unfortunately, this repeated juxtaposition of the bourgeois with scenes of sexual prostitution never does much more than show their difference. We have little sense of what that difference means for Anne, or within the broader social scope of the film. For a film that relies so much on nearly wordless scenes, it seems uncertain of what it is showing us. The composition of the flashbacks, especially, seems haphazard and arbitrary. Beyond a survey of kinky or weepy or sadistic johns, what do these scenes suggest?
We do see that Anne is increasingly aroused by these anecdotes, but it’s difficult to tell how she feels about herself and her own desires. (Scenes of grotesquely sexualized raw chicken and mussels just cracked from the shell only absurdly repeat what we already know.) It’s clear that she comes to see her interview subjects as likable, even admirable, individuals. It’s also clear that, as Anne becomes obsessed with and traumatized by what she learns, she comes to suspect and resent the men who surround her (an absurd dinner party scene brings this experience to its phanatasmagoric head).
Amid this turmoil, Anne mostly seems confused rather than enlightened. While she sees that the sex workers’ lives are sad and dangerous, her own safe life looks increasingly dissatisfying. Szumoska suggests this best with small details, like a refrigerator door that repeatedly, frustratingly catches, rather than when she resorts to bold, predictable displays of disobedient children or brief marital spats.
Even as Elles falls short, Binoche delivers another engaging and complex performance. As Anne shifts between haggard and polished, she’s at once an aging, disappointed woman and a professional journalist, as well as a wife. Her scenes of arousal and angry desire are always convincing — it’s just that they’re ultimately uncompelling within the film’s broader context.
Elles uses prostitution to suggest the very old idea, that beneath the surface of the bourgeoisie lies emotion as perverse and menacing as any. But the repetition of that idea over the course of 90 minutes makes for a static narrative.