A typically smart performance by Juliette Binoche isn’t enough to keep “Elles” from drowning in pseudo-intellectual pretension and general banality. Featuring Binoche in a characteristic role as a stressed-out wife, mother and magazine journalist researching the lives of young Parisian whores, the fourth feature helmed by Malgoska Szumowska strains to suggest that a woman’s work within middle-class family life has a thing or two in common with prostitution. Kino Lorber’s Stateside release of the French-Polish-German co-production could benefit slightly from prurient interest in the pic’s explicit sex scenes, but unaroused reviewers won’t help “Elles” turn tricks at the box office.
While Szumowska and her co-writer, Tine Byrckel, hammer home their arguably offensive theory that well-to-do femmes are acting as hookers in the kitchen and at the keyboard, they seem far less clear on what they want to say about actual harlotry. Scenes of the journalist’s collegiate interview subjects satisfying male clients to earn tuition money are lit and shot like perfume commercials, even as the sex in some cases turns disturbingly brutal. Perhaps the film’s point is that liberation always comes at a cost; certainly the viewer pays a price in watching the more gruelingly lewd episodes here.
Burning the candle at both ends, Anne (Binoche) is introduced as being saddled with two sons — one (Francois Civil) addicted to marijuana, the other (Pablo Beugnet) to videogames — as well as a looming deadline on her student-prostitution piece for the monthly Elle. Anne’s husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is rarely around to help maintain order in their chaotic apartment, and her elderly father (Jean-Marie Binoche) is in the hospital. A ridiculous scene of Anne dutifully rubbing lotion on Dad’s old feet equates her form of servitude with that of her interview subjects, Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig).
The questions Anne asks these young women are none too scintillating, maybe because the journalist is distracted by domestic responsibilities that range from prepping a dinner for her husband’s boss and, in the short term, struggling to close a jam-packed fridge. Trying to stay away from alcohol while maintaining an objective distance from her subjects, Anne breaches protocol on both counts when she gets sloppily drunk on vodka with the Polish Alicja, the two of them giggling with mouths full of pasta before dancing the night away.
That the writer is being driven to explore her own sexuality becomes horribly obvious as Szumowska (“33 Scenes From Life”) follows a scene of Charlotte being raped with images of Anne pleasuring herself. Binoche, who exudes intelligence at every turn, may well be incapable of appearing ashamed on camera, although “Elles” challenges the actor’s integrity — and the approval of her fans — to an unprecedented degree.
Tech credits are, like Anne’s magazine, glossy.