Elles is a film about prostitution that stars three women, has been written by two women, and directed by one of those two women; and yet, I'm not entirely sure what it has to say about prostitution, women, sex or anything else. We spend much of the film observing two young prostitutes, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), as they service their clients in various ways, and we hear them talk about their experience in a very matter-of-fact manner, but the message of the film is unclear by the time we reach the muddled finale. Elles does manage to hold our interest at all points on this journey, thanks to the fine performances and director Malgorzata Szumowska's stylish visuals, but it mainly has Juliette Binoche to thank for keeping us riveted.
She plays Anne, a Parisian journalist working on article about college students turning to prostitution to supplement their income. The deadline is approaching and Anne is feeling the pressure. On the day we meet her she is attempting to finish her piece while preparing a dinner party for her husband's boss, dealing with their errant son who has been skipping school and smoking pot and – gasp! – coping with the revelation that her husband has been watching porn on his laptop. The problems faced by Anne and the film's overall portrait of how stifling middle-class life can be feels overly familiar and the apparent attempt to draw some sort of parallel between the girls' willing exploitation of their bodies and Anne's own domestic exploitation is trite. It's too easy to predict that the stress induced by this article, the re-emergence of Anne's own sexual desires, and the series of petty annoyances that accumulate through the day will result in some sort of backlash or meltdown during the climactic dinner party – the importance of which we are so frequently reminded of.
Naturally, Binoche is as committed as ever in this central role. She's such a natural, unaffected presence on screen, somebody happy to inhabit the skin of her character even when it appears an uncomfortable fit, but there's only so much she can do with such a slight role. For a journalist writing about young prostitutes, Anne seems totally naïve to the realities of her subject, reacting with consistent astonishment at the stories recounted by Charlotte and Alicja, both of whom seem happy and confident with their choice of career. The film's sexual encounters are artfully staged by Szumowska – with the girls being alternately dominant and submissive, intimate and abused – but a sense of repetition sets in as these sequences fail to enhance our understanding of their characters or Anne's.
Elles almost lurches into self-parody towards the end, as Beethoven's 7th Symphony blasts away on the soundtrack and the boundaries between the prostitutes' lives and Anne's own begin to blur in a ludicrous fashion. Only one moment in Elles really stings, when a scene in which Charlotte is sexually assaulted with a wine bottle cuts straight to a shot of Binoche masturbating, suggesting that Anne's own mental portrait of this unpleasant anecdote has driven her to pleasure herself. But such notions are never really explored, and the film seems happy to dip a toe into the world of prostitution without really wading in deeper to form any kind of consistent take on it. Elles is a fine showcase for two up-and-coming actresses, and a valuable reminder of the class Binoche brings to any project, but all three have to rise above material that only cheapens their talents.