Elles (Kino Lorber, NC-17)

elles binocheThe film seems like it’s trying to be a feminist text but ends up a worthless, misdirected exercise where nearly the whole cast is humiliated (perhaps for the potential titillation of the audience?) but no point is ultimately made.

 

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Here’s a rather baffling movie: an NC-17 rated film directed by a woman that is about a female journalist who is writing a piece on young prostitutes. The film seems like it’s trying to be a feminist text but ends up a worthless, misdirected exercise where nearly the whole cast is humiliated (perhaps for the potential titillation of the audience?) but no point is ultimately made. It’s a stupid, ugly affair.

The journalist in question is Anne (international treasure Juliette Binoche), and her two primary subjects for the piece are Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier, a young actress who has been popping up in many French films in the past decade), whose professional name is Lola, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig). Charlotte and Alicja are both smart, pretty, and well-bred—so far as we can tell, anyway—but their young lives have led them to need money that they don’t have (for school and other reasons), so they turn to prostitution. While each gets at least one inarguably degrading, horrifying scene, on the whole. they seem to enjoy their work and be self-possessed, unexploited, happy, and rich enough to not need worrying about.

I really have no idea what Polish co-writer/director Malgorzata Szumowska is trying to tell us with this film. Does she think these girls are empowered, since they seem so unbothered by their work and pleased with the amount of money they make? Is she trying to show us how rotten the world is, that girls like this need to turn to being paid for sex in order to support themselves? Does the change in tone toward the end point at some thesis of Szumowska’s that I’m missing?

And if this is intended as a feminist statement, why are we repeatedly shown the girls naked time and time again—but, just like in most mainstream, R-rated American movies, every time it makes sense that you would see a man’s naked bits, they’re very carefully obscured? It seems hypocritical to continue this long-held double standard in male nudity versus female nudity in cinema and all the while try to prove something-or-other about how society views its women.

Or maybe it’s not trying to do that at all. Maybe Elles is just trying to turn on its male audience by providing a flimsy context to show pretty young actresses happily submitting themselves for serious abuses by strange males. No matter what Elles was trying to do, it didn’t succeed. I left the film neither enlightened, thoughtful, aroused, nor angry at society. More like just angry at the film for being a hateful, artless piece of shit. | Pete Timmermann

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