A film so gloriously misguided it almost begs to be seen, Polish director Malgoska Szumowska's fourth feature has a lot on its mind and a few flashes of style, but absolutely no idea what to do with it, other than look at prostitution in contemporary Paris with a dispassionate gaze that occasionally stumbles into voyeurism. In fact, there's more than a hint of Michael Haneke's chilly matter-of-fact elegance in Ms. Szumowska's presentation, preference for long, nervous takes, and in Michał Englert's crisp lensing; but the Polish director is utterly unable to imbue her admittedly interesting way of filming and framing with any sort of relevance towards the tale she is telling.

     In a nutshell, Elles is about a working mother (Juliette Binoche) dealing with a number of family and personal crises as she works on a magazine story about students prostituting themselves to make a living. Why this would require sex scenes with full frontal nudity where Charlotte and Alicja (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) service their clients is fathomless, as is why the script makes such an effort to make the harried Anne feel like a feminist who sold her soul to the condescending male devil. There is an interesting kernel of story here - the fact that, for the two young women, prostitution is a choice as natural as any other, thus upending the journalist's (and many of the viewers') prejudices. But Ms. Szumowska prefers to focus on Anne's hellish day (in a direct but misguided lift from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), thus opening herself to accusations of bourgeois first-world guilt as Anne (portrayed by a characteristically great Ms. Binoche as a genuinely confused woman) feels her gilded cage closing in on her. What comes out of this is a spectacularly ill-conceived, disastrously barmy drama that seems to make no obvious point.

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Krystyna Janda, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Andrzej Chyra

Director: Malgoska Szumowska
Screenplay: Tine Byrckel, Ms. Szumowska
Cinematography: Michał Englert  (colour, processing by Arri Film & TV Services, widescreen)
Music: Pawel Mykietyn
Designer: Pauline Bourdon
Costumes: Katarzyna Lewińska
Editors: Françoise Tourmen, Jacek Drosio
Producer: Marianne Slot (Slot Machine in co-production with Zentropa International Poland, Zentropa International Köln, Canal Plus Poland, ZDF, Shot Szumowski and Liberator Productions)
France/Poland/Germany/Denmark, 2011, 99 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 6th 2012


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