In Elles, a Paris journalist has an eye-opening experience when she interviews two university students who moonlight as prostitutes. So do the movie's viewers, presented with beaucoup de nudite. No genitalia are on display, but there are a few kinky moments that justify the NC-17 rating.
Anne (Juliette Binoche) writes for, yes, Elle. Her normal beat seems to be fashion, but now she's reporting on undergraduates who support themselves as hookers. She finds two: Charlotte (Anais Demoustier), a girl-next-door type from the suburbs, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a busty blond from Poland. Charlotte likes the extra cash; Alicja couldn't afford to live in France without it.
The interviews with the two young women are presented in fragments, inserted into a few days of home life that test Anne's domestic skills. Her younger son spends too much time playing video games; her older one is cutting classes and smoking pot. As the article's deadline looms, Anne's husband expects her to cook and host a gourmet dinner for his boss and his wife. And, he warns her more matter-of-factly than imperiously, Anne mustn't upset their guests with any "feminist" remarks. The implication is that Anne is less free than Charlotte (whose clients know her as Lola) and Alicja.
Following Binoche closely with a hand-held camera, director Malgoska Szumowska depicts Anne's upscale apartment as confining and even hazardous. The journalist is harried, exhausted and sexually frustrated, leading to a series of minor kitchen accidents that serve as metaphors for the injuries inflicted by bourgeois marriage.
Meanwhile, Anne develops a big-sisterly rapport with Charlotte, who reports that her clients are surprisingly chatty and "completely normal." Alicja, who insists that any interview be lubricated by vodka, soon has Anne giggling and ready to dance — and maybe more.
It might seem that Szumowska, a Polish director making her first feature outside her homeland, has arrived a little late with the news that women are subjugated by men. Elles was inspired by news reports about student-hookers, much as Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her was sparked 45 years ago by coverage of homemaker-hookers. Not long after that, movies like Diary of a Mad Housewife conveyed the frustrations of gilded-cage wives and mothers.
Yet Elles has contemporary pertinence. As the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair showed, feminism hasn't significantly mellowed France's macho culture. And sexual predation on young women from Eastern Europe remains a timely topic.
While the contrast between Anne and the call girls is a little glib, Szumowska doesn't present Charlotte and Alicja's trade as entirely benign. The two young women tell the reporter that they're content, but scenes of them with some clients reveal that they can feel threatened or degraded. (The hookers dismiss the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, however, on the grounds that their clients are "bored married men" whose only other partners are their wives.)
The sex scenes are attention-getting, but Elles is most remarkable as a naturalistic portrait of a woman. Binoche, in one of her rawest performances since 1991's The Lovers of the Pont Neuf, is seen masturbating, examining one of her breasts, even chewing with her mouth open. In more prosaic moments, Anne visits her father (played by Binoche's actual father) in the hospital and listens to the radio station that provides the movie's predominantly Euro-classical score. Such touches ensure that, for all the movie's contrivances, its central character feels genuine.