Elles (2011)

Małgoska Szumowska directs Juliette Binoche, Joanna Kulig and Anaïs Demoustier in this drama about a middle aged journalist investigating college girls who become prostitutes in Paris.

A politically troubling film. On one hand it presents the pressures, risks and exploitation of young working class girls who sell their bodies. Very feminist in giving a voice to these silent, hidden, brave women. On the other hand you have some of the hottest actresses in European arthouse cinema baring all, doing degrading acts in seductive poses and it is all wonderfully lit. So Elles is one half polemic, the other half whacking material for the dirty mac brigade. I have no issue with either but it hardly sits well together. I guess what I really did like about Elles (apart from the obvious) is that it not only made clear it is Juliette Binoche’s class of person creating the conditions in which the young girls have to commodify their bodies but they want to remain ignorant it is precisely their type who are to blame. The journalist doesn’t fully grasp it is men like her rich husband who buy this type of girl for the night until the closing scenes, set the rents they can’t afford, arrange the bureaucracy that means there is no real safety net when these lower income workers find they cannot afford the middle class lifestyle of university. One woman talks of never forgetting the smell, Binoche’s posho assumes she means semen but she actually means her housing estate she left for educational advancement among the monied. Another describes the first meal her john makes her before pissing in her mouth, later Binoche unthinkingly prepares the same Waitrose-level cookery – too busy to see the parallel Szumowska is making. The film in its own way preempts my current feelings on identity politics. If everyone can make themselves a victim of an unjust society then suddenly the rich who are the biggest problem, the most exploitative, can let themselves off the hook because of some vague general gender / sexuality / race prejudice that other people suffer from and they co-opt. That’s not the main thrust of Elles, and there is some very arousing thrusting, but I liked the fact it was there in plain sight.


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