Reviews

'Elles' Resorts to Old Tricks

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.


Elles

Director: Magolska Szumoska
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Louis-Dominique de Lencquesaing, Krystyna Janda, Andrzej Chyra
Rated: NC-17
Studio: Kino Lorber Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-04-27 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-04-20 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

5

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image