We live in a pretty progressive time where fetishes and other various sexual peccadillos are common knowledge if not comfortably discussed. But in Malgoska Szumowska’s weirdly old fashioned, quasi made-for-TV “Elles,” Anne (Juliette Binoche) nearly has a nervous breakdown while researching an article for a magazine when she learns — gasp! — that some people pay for dirty sex with prostitutes. No way.
From all appearances, life in Anne’s beautiful upper middle class Parisian condo seems to be going just fine. However, as is usually the case, below the surface are a variety of problems. Her youngest son seems to be addicted to video games, her eldest son is in and out at all hours and is now skipping school, and the intimacy with her husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is beginning to fade. These are all problems that could be addressed quite easily, but Anne and Patrick are busy with their careers and both have demurred from disciplining their children or discussing their relationship. Patrick’s job conveniently keeps out of most of the movie, but Anne’s investigation takes her dangerously to…a park bench and a swanky hotel suite.
After calling up a couple of escort numbers posing as a client, Anne meets two young and improbably gorgeous prostitutes: the comely Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and the exotic Alicja (Joanna Kulig). After gently convincing them to share their stories with her, Anne learns their respective backstories that are entirely cliché. For Charlotte, she quickly fell into selling sex when she learned her wage slave job just wouldn’t be enough to cover her expenses for school. Sleeping with guys turned out to be a much easier and more lucrative way to earn funds, and her fine organizational skills allows to her also keep a boyfriend as well. Meanwhile, Alicja’s journey was a bit more harrowing; finding herself a new immigrant in Paris with little money to her name she began to sell her body to keep up a lifestyle she began to enjoy.
Szumowska’s conservatism in regards to sex comes through in an extended sequence in which we see Alicja’s sex acts with one of her clients start innocently enough with her getting bent over a couch and fucked from behind, leading to some mutual masturbation, and followed by getting her tits pissed on. Yes, it’s graphically depicted with a judgmental, slightly grossed-out eye, but it’s not any more shocking than the average contents of a weekly Savage Love column. As for Charlotte, her appointments are much more routine and less explicitly depicted, and she seems to be enjoying what is a much more idyllic-than-usual gig as a woman of the night, balancing her home life and her studies.
As Anne continues to learn more and more about the girls and their confident approach to sexuality and the comfort they have in their own bodies, her own life continues to fall part. Patrick indulges their youngest son’s video game habit, the eldest continues to flaunt his parent’s rules and even worse, and Patrick tells her to keep a lid on her “feminist” rants when he has his very important business colleagues over for dinner. But there is an even worse discovery she will soon make — her husband and teenage son both watch porn. No way! This sends Anne hysterically over the edge, and if you’ve ever wanted to see Binoche’s desperate “O face” as she masturbates on the bathroom floor or get rejected in the midst of a blowjob with Patrick, then this is the movie for you.
Szumowska isn’t quite sure what she wants to say about prostitution or Anne’s own sexuality. While Charlotte and Alicja both spend most of the movie navigating their jobs without consequence, as if to drive home the point that prostitution can be dangerous, one of them will get horribly violated. It seems Szumowska would rather side on the conventional notion that paying for sex is distasteful. Meanwhile, Anne leaves the film without considering any of the issues raised in her own life about pornography or sexuality. “Elles” tries to end on an ambiguous note that instead of leaving the audience thinking about what has transpired, it runs away from any issue it brings up.
“Elles” is ultimately an exploration of some very sound topics around women and sexuality, that feels about 10 to 15 years old. At its worst it’s a Lifetime movie with explicit nudity. And while the performances are strong — Kulig has the potential to be breakout star boasting a strong screen presence and an undeniable beauty — they flounder in a movie that fails to reward them with character development or a story that goes beyond the obvious. Trying to rely on “sordid” sexuality to deliver the drama instead of any truly compelling narrative, “Elles” is ultimately is a flaccid effort. [D+]