Rating: 2/5It’s not often that NC-17 rating winks back at moviegoers from a poster. Created by the Motion Picture Association of America in 1990 to replace the heavily stigmatized X rating (which reached that point in part because the MPAA. had opted against copywriting the rating as they did all the others, allowing it to be ferociously embraced by the pornography industry), the reconsidered rating was intended to allow serious adult fare to reach the proper audiences. It’s never really happened, though, in part because the worthy films that come out with that assigned designation often perpetuate the notion that it’s reserved for high-gloss trash. When Showgirls is the box office standard-bearer for the rating, convincing serious cineastes that the letter-number combo has stepped clear of the gutter is going to be a hard sell.
And Malgoska Szumowska’s Elles isn’t exactly going to help the cause, either. The French film follows a print journalist named Anne (Juliette Binoche) who’s working on an article about modern-day prostitutes. She interviews Lola (Anaïs Demoustier), a fresh-faced young beauty who seems blithely at home in the shiny greenery of the park where most of the conversations takes place, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a Polish immigrant who greets most questions with eyes veiled by heavy lids, indicating both mystery and maybe lurking menace. The film subtly shifts back and forth in time as the conversations are intercut with both the experiences of the two young woman and Anne slowly coming undone as she deals with family tensions and prepares for a dinner party the day before her piece is due.
The film is brutally frank and sexually explicit. Even if Szumowska sometimes can’t quite decide how to balance the erotic with the more harrowing aspects of life as a sex worker, the director is plainly fearless about putting uncompromising material onscreen (Szumowska also co-wrote the screenplay with Tine Byrckel). Unfortunately, a cogent point of view is almost entirely lost in the procession of trysts and indignities. The story doesn’t come together, making the whole thing seem like the scraps of preparatory notes culled by the journalist protagonist rather than the final work that might emerge from her efforts. I presume that Szumowska is trying to extend some empathy to Lola and Alicja, but apparently not so much that they become well-rounded characters. They’re almost as anonymous as the men who hire them want them to be. In a more pointed, precise film, that could be the point. There’s a certain self-damning symmetry that could be scraped away at, with the actresses hired to bare their bodies standing in comparison to their characters that are paid to do the same, but the film is largely disinterested in that level of introspection. At one point Anne starting raving about the ways that the male-dominated society positions all women as whores, a distant rumble of philosophical heft that proves to be false thunder. It’s just a way to demonstrate how thoroughly Anne is becoming unhinged by her assignment. “It’s driving you completely crazy, this article on whores,” her irritated husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) intones, and the movie nods its assent.
Binoche does the best she can with the role, though the trajectory of her character is painfully obvious from the beginning. She begins over-associating with the young prostitutes and her emotions become erratic, especially as the whole day conspires against her with tiny burdens: a son playing hooky from school, a refrigerator door with a broken latch, a burned hand while cooking. After all this, when she cuts her finger while chopping in the kitchen it begins to seem as if there will be no end to the mishaps. Surely her skirt will rip away and a chandelier will come crashing to the ground at any minute. Binoche handles it with admirable enough dignity, but the movie is a misappropriation of her talents. She’s far more compelling in the recognizable familial reality of bickering with her sons about video games and Cocoa Krispies than she is in the melodramatic movie spiral called for in the plot.
All the missteps strip away any power the film might otherwise have. When Lola reveals to Anne that her real name is Charlotte, the moment is meant to have great poignancy, a bit of vulnerability behind the façade, a tender human connection for a woman whose existence is buffeted by men desiring the crude and animalistic. Instead, it’s another empty conceit in a film that’s already top-heavy with them.