Downbeat ‘Elles’ doesn’t deserve magnificent Binoche

  • Wed May 2nd, 2012 4:50pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

A writer for Elle magazine in Paris may be taking her job too much to heart. Anne, played by the formidable Juliette Binoche, is researching a story about young women who finance their post-graduate studies by becoming prostitutes.

“Elles” depicts Anne herself as well along on life’s journey: a successful husband, two sons, an expensive Paris apartment, and an interesting job. There’s just a little bit of — oh, the French have a word for it, don’t they? — ennui. Yes, that’s it.

So she’s susceptible to a kind of unhealthy fascination about the sexual stories told her by two women she interviews, one French (Anais Demoustier), one Polish (Joanna Kulig). Their professional encounters don’t sound especially glamorous, but Anne is just bored enough to be intrigued.

Director Malgorzata Szumowska doesn’t stint on depicting the sessions between clients and prostitutes, which explains the film’s relatively rare NC-17 rating. These are presumably the stories being told to Anne as she explores the lives of the women, although it doesn’t take long to realize she’s not really working on the magazine story anymore.

The movie feels positioned to catch the audience that liked “I Am Love,” that overblown but hard-to-resist bodice-ripper. “Elles” doesn’t have the same level of lushness, opting instead for a grittier, more downbeat feel.

And however much Anne’s character might be daydreaming about sex because of the stories she hears, Szumowska makes sure to include enough unpleasantness in the transactions to remind us of the dangerous nature of this business.

Which, like most of the other points scored here, is pretty obvious. And yet the movie manages to be obscure, too, which is really saying something.

The main reason to sit through the picture is Juliette Binoche (although Kulig and Demoustier are both striking actresses). Binoche is so committed to tackling these kinds of difficult roles you begin to worry about her a little.

She’s up to the task, and her performance as the journalist here is completely without glamour or embarrassment. In a way, this just increases my frustration with “Elles”: When you’ve got an actress willing to go all the way for a cause, the cause ought to be something special. Despite its generous amount of nudity, “Elles” isn’t that.

“Elles” (2 stars)

A magazine journalist (Juliette Binoche) interviews young women financing their post-grad studies with prostitution, and the stories create some restlessness in the otherwise bourgeois reporter. No stinting on the nudity in this downbeat story, but the movie’s obvious points aren’t worthy of Binoche’s committed performance. In French, with English subtitles.

Rating: NC-17, for nudity, subject matter.

Showing: Varsity.