Cinema Review: Elles

DIR: Malgorzata Szumowska • WRI: Malgorzata Szumowska, Tine Byrckel • PRO: Marianne Slot • DOP: Michal Englert • ED: Jacek Drosio, Françoise Tourmen • DES: Pauline Bourdon • Cast: Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing

Since first emerging in the mid-’80s, working with legendary auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard and Andre Techine, Juliette Binoche has consistently been one of the most compelling screen presences of her generation. In her heyday in the early ‘90s she lit up Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991) and even redeemed the overcooked Damage (1993),  before going on to mainstream Hollywood success in Oscar-bait like The English Patient and Chocolat. In one of her most acclaimed roles of that period, as an emotionally-shattered widow in Kryzstof Kieslowski’s Three Colurs: Blue (1993), her serene but subtly expressive face provided a mesmerising focal point which greatly magnified that film’s power.  Now, with Elles, another graduate of the justly-famed Lodz Film School, Malgorzata Szumowska, similarly benefits from Binoche’s unique talents. Here she plays Anne, a top writer for Elle in Paris,  working on a feature article about female students supplementing their income by moonlighting as prostitutes. As they recount their occasionally disturbing stories of erotic intrigue, Anne’s carefully constructed facade of middle-class Parisian respectability slowly begins to crack as she becomes aware of long dormant feelings about sex and family relationships. Chronologically complex, the film’s action is set primarily on the day of Anne’s frantic preparations for a dinner party for her husband and his boss, an event which eventually pushes Anne right to the edge.

Szumowska has a great eye for detail that reminds the viewer of the films of Lynne Ramsey, but its another Binoche film, Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005), which is most similar to Elles. Both films share a pre-occupation with the  hypocrisies  of bourgeois  Parisian life, (and there is a smart visual nod to Haneke’s film with its extended final shot), but Szumowska has a greater handle on the subtleties and nuances of character, and together with Binoche they create a memorable study of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with the changing landscape of her life as she enters middle age. Her prim sensibilities suddenly jarred by the graphic accounts of the demure Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) and the wilder Alicja (Joanna Krulig, in an impressive performance), the teetotal Anne suddenly starts drinking and smoking with abandon.  As she hurries around her kitchen preparing the food for the fateful dinner party, a stubborn fridge door which refuses to close for her becomes an amusing symbol of her frustration at her atrophied and repressed domestic life, as she becomes increasingly alienated from her two sons and her emotionally-distant wet blanket of a husband. Szumowska pulls off a virtuoso, dreamlike sequence at the insufferably dull dinner party as her interviewee’s ‘clients’ take the place of her companions around the table, like leering ghosts at the feast, illustrating Juliette’s increasing sense of disconnection from her own existence. Elles effective use of music is especially noteworthy in this regard, with the director making clever use of the surging second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to suggest the  turbulent passions brewing up inside Anne.

Elles is a visually stylish and inventive portrait of the ways in which self-doubt and sexual repression can threaten the flimsy security of even the most superficially happy and successful among us, but while the film doesn’t shy away completely from the darker side of prostitution, there is some grounds for accusing it of glossing over certain undeniable truths about the oldest profession. However, the story of Anne’s emotional journey is handled  with such style by all concerned that the result is never less than compelling. Szumowska’s direction reveals a hugely promising talent and a great eye for insightful detail,  but the absorbing Elles most definitely belongs to La Binoche.

Martin Cusack

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)
Elles is released on 20th April 2012


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