A devastating bedroom battle of the sexes, Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles offers a glimpse into the secret lives of women behind closed doors.
Belles De Jour by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
From Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel through to Jacques Demy’s eponymous film, our cherished Lolas of cinema have always walked the line between working and showgirl. And following in the stilettoed footsteps of Marlene Dietrich and Anouk Aimée, Anaïs Demoustier’s Lola in Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles is no different. She struts onto our screens as a pay-as-you-go seductress, tempting bored husbands and moneyed students with her gamine good looks. But it’s not long before Lola’s demystified and re-presented as Charlotte, a strapped-for-cash student living the Parisian dream. And as much as it is a film about high-class aspirationalism and its inevitable moral ebb, Elles is above all a film about women. Women and conversely, or should that be perversely, a film about men.
It’s Anne that provides our conduit into this seedy underworld. A writer at Elle magazine, she has the kind of easy and luxurious lifestyle Charlotte and Alicja crave. All dressed up in gauzy agnès b. creations, and with her sumptuous Parisian flat, Anne, as incorporated by Juliette Binoche, is effortlessly stylish and successful. The opening scenes turn out to be an interview with Charlotte that needs transcribing and Anne labours through the peace of night, cut off from the rest of the slumbering world by her shriving headphones, only rousing from her labours to pack her husband and two sons off to work and school. And it’s not exactly domestic bliss. Chaos reigns chez Anne, as she battles work, a dinner party for her husband’s boss and a temperamental fridge door. But what unbalances Anne more than anything else are those lingering encounters with elles.
Charlotte and Alicja are the sexy side of prostitution – no addictions, diseases or pimps. Just girl-next-door looks, a fancy salary and a surprising lack of unpleasant johns. And while Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles is based on real-life reports of French students funding university courses through sex, its partisan optimism is more than a little unsettling. But that, of course, is the point. Like the girls’ cheery insouciance when it comes to condoms, it’s a confrontation to bourgeois sensibilities as well as common sense. Instead, the girls cheerfully steer a course through unorthodox sex acts with husbands bored of their humdrum sex wives. And for Alicja, it’s a way out of cheap furniture, acrylic jumpers and the high-rise, her Munchian scream over the HLMs in a very Eastern bloc-looking Villiers-le-Bel a violent expression of her frustration. Their secret call girl diaries lead them not only out of poverty and debt, but into a luxury world of designer shoes and flats. For these millennium girls, sex is nothing more than an uncomplicated exchange of bodily fluids, and worth every penny.
What’s most fascinating about Elles though is Anne’s relationship with Charlotte and Alicja. She meets Charlotte in the Buttes Chaumont, maternal and protective. But after her rendezvous with Alicja in a hotel, seduced by miniature bottles of vodka and Alicja’s winning smile, Anne is enveloped into a transgressive space, suddenly capable of things she normally wouldn’t do. And putting to good use the girl she paid for, Anne and Alicja dissolve into a cinematic blur, their two figures merging into one. Their influence endures though, well beyond the slow fade. And soon Anne begins to question her repetitious existence, her dinner party coq au Riesling a sly poke at her husband’s colleagues with a recipe borrowed from Alicja and her john. It’s a captivating performance from Juliette Binoche, caught between middle-class mores and a seething desire to explode, an erotically charged firework whose masturbation scene, with its blotched skin and pulsating veins, is overwhelmingly brave, honest and haunting.
Quaffing glasses of Chardonnay, Anne becomes more and more distant from her family and the world around her, an isolation that becomes even more apparent during a chilling dinner party scene in which all of her male guests are suddenly transformed in her mind’s eye into the girls’ clients. Gender mistrust, male dominance and female control are themes which dog Elles; Charlotte and Alicja battling for control of their paying guests with rules and lines drawn in the sand, while their customers in turn demand it harder, faster, stronger. Men fare badly in Elles, either teenage stoners or sex-obsessed philandering husbands, but breaking out from her middle-class malaise in an impetuous abruptness, she hits Paris by night, on the prowl and dangerous. Her new-found libertinism is only short-lived though, and soon she’s back in the family home. But repairing their marriage with fellatio, she turns herself into a belle de nuit, destroying her husband’s need and her fear of going elsewhere. It’s quietly devastating, and the final scene, with harmony restored to the breakfast table, is subtly shocking, its domestic bliss not even faked.
With entrancing cinematography from Michal Englert and a sumptuous score, Elles is an arthouse rocket. Joanna Kulig (of The Woman In The Fifth) and Anaïs Demoustier are bewitching as the butter-wouldn’t-melt temptresses, but it’s Juliette Binoche’s performance which provides the film’s gravitational pull, whipping up a maelstrom of frustration, misplaced morals and desire. Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles may on the surface be about three women, and by extension womankind, but Elles isn’t other people, it’s La Binoche. It’s her very Freudian transition from Madonna to whore and back again. But like those cinematic Lolas of yesteryear, she’s more than just a showgirl.
Elles is released on 20th April 2012 in the UK