Elle magazine journalist Anne (Juliette Binoche), leads a typical middle class life in Paris, juggling work, family of two children and leisure. Her research for an article on prostitution bursts into her calm as she meets Alicja (Joanna Kulig) a Polish student and Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) a young French woman, whose stories lead Anne to question her most intimate convictions about money, family and sex.
Review by Louise Keller:
By assuming the perspective of a journalist researching an article about student prostitution, sex and risk-taking become the take-off point for a myriad of revelations - about pleasure, self-worth, responsibility and letting go. With Juliette Binoche in the leading role as Anne, questioning her roles as wife, mother and sexual being whose outwardly successful life seems to have been robbed of freedom, spontaneity and fun, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska has her greatest asset.
But while the graphic sexual scenes of intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus and masturbation are apt and in keeping with Szumowska's concept, there is an element of voyeurism and titillation by design that seeps out in the realisation of the narrative. Additionally, the biased, positive depiction of sex for cash is one that sends a questionable message - if there is no psychological or physical downside. Watching Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan made me think that being a hotel maid seemed like fun. Similarly, having sex for money is portrayed in a similar way. Nonetheless the film does engage as we tentatively tread on the erotic stepping stones that lead the protagonist to a self-understanding.
The opening scenes vividly describe Anne's (Binoche) everyday life, juggling her various roles at home, trying to make sure her dope-smoking teenage son studies and that her younger son's time playing with video games is limited. Her husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) has his own pressures and Anne needs to occasionally play hostess to his boss.
By contrast, the lives of the two student prostitutes (Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig) seem almost simple. Initially reticent to reveal insights into their lives, the girls soon open up and not only tell-all about their lifestyles, thoughts and experiences, but invite her into their worlds. According to Charlotte (Demoustier), a small-breasted brunette with a demure expression, the job is far from odious allowing her to be in control with clients - mostly bored, married men, who (sex aside) like to talk, cook and even sing. She finds the way they look at her exciting. It is in flashbacks that we (like Anne) meet the men who do all the things they cannot do with their wives.
When Anne first meets Alicja (Kulig), a voluptuous Polish blonde with an expensive wardrobe, she protests she does not drink, when vodka is offered. As they connect and Alicja shares her experiences, Anne is able to let her hair down - clearly a revelation to her. The impact of the lives about which she is learning reverberates into her own as she questions not only her life, but who she is and what is the price she is paying for her own choices and bourgeois existence.
Binoche is warm and credible as she allows the persona of Anne embrace the experiences of the two prostitutes. The scene in which Anne reaches a crisis point with Patrick is nicely realised by a simple shot in which a mirror reflects her alter ego. The dinner scene, when Anne cooks coq au vin for Patrick's boss, and Anne imagines the girls' naked lovers sitting around the table, is also one of the film's most striking.
In the final analysis, the sex is sensational; Binoche is real. The use of Wagner's Valkyrie (under the pretext of Anne's love for listening to classical radio) with its symbolic inference of the power of women, seems rather pretentious as a result.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Maybe I've been around the cinema traps too long but it seems to me that the idea of film exploring prostitution is - like the profession itself - a rather old one, running the gamut from the elegant Belle de Jour (d: Luis Bunuel, 1967) to the strikingly truthful and stylistically inventive Black & White & Sex (2011) from Australian filmmaker John Winter. The latter is the definitive one on the subject, by the way.
Not that the topic has been exhausted and it is certainly valid for re-examination - especially if the filmmaker has something to say. I can't tell what Elles has to say and I rather think the filmmakers don't either, beyond the vague notion that by interacting with two young semi-pro pros, as it were, Anne (Juliette Binoche) reconsiders her bourgeois life. While she makes a couple of small adjustments, they are insufficient to satisfy.
As for Alicja (Joanna Kulig) a Polish student and Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) a young French woman who feel compelled to sell sex in Paris, their circumstances are so predictable and ordinary that the bleed any freshness out of the scenario. Alicja has landed from Poland without her luggage and is totally reliant on getting a job or social security; when that doesn't work, she turns a trick ... Charlotte, who works as Lola, is a student, sick of the shitty pay of shitty student jobs. Neither plan to make prostitution a career.
The story is not about them, but about Anne, who is briefly in their orbit as a feature writer for Elle, trying to make a story out of interviews with the two girls. Given what we see and hear of these interviews, the editor would be well advised to spike it; there is nothing new or fresh or revealing here, despite graphic sex, solo and mutual masturbation, fellatio and so on. Those graphic scenes attract attention to the film, but play more like scenes from a porn movie, lacking the dramatic rationale that is missing from the screenplay.
Anne's home life is drawn with perfunctory predictability, too; a flake of a husband, a typical teenage son disconnected from his parents and a youngster addicted to video games. But Binoche delivers a remarkable and intimate performance, one that would grace any major filmmaker's work.
Here, the filmmakers are banking on the wanking and the big music of Verdi and Beethoven to make the film seem 'important' and artistic, but it ends up being just arty farty, with hand held camera close ups of the ordinary, hoping to find something extraordinary and meaningful in the daily debris of these lives.
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CAST: Juliette Binoche, Anais Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Krystyna Janda, Jean-Marie Binoche, Francois Civil, Pablo Beugnet
PRODUCER: Marianne Slot
DIRECTOR: Malgoska Szumowska
SCRIPT: Malgoska Szumowska, Tine Byrckel
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michal Englert
EDITOR: Jacek Drosio, Francoise Tourmen
MUSIC: Pawel Mykietin
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Pauline Bourdon
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 7, 2013
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