Beneath its sophisticated Frenchness and Juliette Binoche-led cast, Elles is gratuitous garbage. It opens with a barely visible scene of a man receiving fellatio. But if that’s your thing, don’t worry—the rest of the film’s unnecessary yet frequent sex scenes occur in broad daylight.
The story centers on Anne (Binoche), a journalist who’s writing an article about prostitution, particularly students who started doing it to pay for their eductation. She interviews Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), an innocent-looking, fresh-faced girl who thinks hooking is way easier than working at a fast-food restaurant, which she still does occasionally as a ruse. Then there’s Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a blonde from Poland whose icy stare and directness are almost frightening. Neither student is ashamed of what she does; both get pleasure from it. Anne listens to their stories with a too-frequent smile on her face, as if it’s all good fun.
Elles, directed and co-written by Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska, moves slowly and quietly, allowing you to ponder the young women’s stories along with Anne. You’re exposed to some of it through Anne’s recorder. (“It’s like smoking,” Charlotte says. “It’s hard to stop.”) But mostly you see Charlotte’s and Alicja’s encounters with their johns, in graphic detail. These scenes do little to advance the story, which allegedly is about how, in the words of Anne’s husband, “It’s driving you completely crazy, this article on whores.”
That crucial aspect of the film, however, is the one thing you don’t see. Aside from Anne’s weird maniacal laughing at inappropriate times (in France, her inability to uncork a wine bottle apparently indicates a serious social defecit), you simply watch her go about her days, either interviewing Charlotte and Alicja (and getting drunk with the latter, even though she first tells Anne that she doesn’t drink) or living the life of a work-at-home writer: sitting in front of the computer in her robe, going to the store, showering, making dinner. She rebukes her son for skipping class and surveils her husband’s Internet history.
Nothing, other than that single drunken evening, suggests that she’s loosened up or going “completely crazy.” Then again, since we know nothing about Anne, we couldn’t really judge, could we?
After its scenes of domestic normalcy punctuated by random sex, Elles wraps on an even more curious note, with Anne picturing all of Charlotte’s and Alicja’s clients sitting around her table during a dinner party. She sways to the music one plays, then gets up and leaves. Is Anne disturbed that the men who frequent prostitutes may be as normal as those she interacts with in her humdrum life? Who knows. If that’s the gist, it’s not enough to make Elles worth your time.