Elles: Toronto Review

An empty and somewhat idealized portrayal of student prostitution with the twist that both the writer and director are women.

Polish-born French director Malgoska Szumowska’s and her co-writer Tine Byrckel explore the worlds of two student prostitutes and the female journalist who interviews them.

TORONTO — One film making the festival rounds this fall is Whore’s Glory, Michael Glawogger’s observational documentary about prostitution. Premering here in Toronto, Malgoska Szumowska’s Elles, which she wrote with Tine Byrckel, presents a fictional, somewhat romanticized version of the same subject. The film attempts to create a feminist rationale for the two sex workers on view but whether a viewer buys into this or not, you know you’re watching actors playing roles dreamed up by people without much familiarity with the subject itself. In other words, Whore’s Glory is real; Elles is complete fiction and should be judged as such.

PHOTOS: 13 Movies to Know at the Toronto Film Festival

Male writers and filmmakers have created their own myths surrounded prostitutes for eons so there’s no reason this virtually all-female cast and crew can’t make up a female version. For that matter, Catherine Breillat has explored the controversial territory of female sexuality in a number of films although Szumowska’s take on the subject is less nasty and more curious than Breillat’s. A sex scene or two may provoke or shock at festivals. Otherwise, this French-Polish-German co-production should see only marginal box office when it opens in France next February even with the good fortune of having Juliete Binoche as the film’s lead.

Binoche plays a middle-class journalist, wife and mother fighting a deadline for a magazine piece she’s writing about student prostitutes. As she goes about her day listening to interview tapes and preparing dinner for her husband’s boss, scenes of the interviews with her two subjects plus the young women’s encounters with several clients, some reasonably graphic, play through her head.

These interviews have seemingly had a profound impact on Binoche’s character, causing her to stare off into space and suffer more than one kitchen accident while preparing dinner. Her exposure to these women’s live has played havoc with her feminist sensibilities and caused her to look at her own life and family in a new light.

Her older son smokes dope and skips school while the younger one is buried in his PlayStation. Her husband’s greatest relationship is with his mobile phone so a viewer is supposed to realize how unsatisfying her life is. But compared to student hookers? Really?

Mind you, the hookers’ encounters with their johns are treated like exciting temporary affairs without any real dangers or diseases. The girls are really the ones in charge. A client even taught one girl how to make coq au vinand, you guessed it, that’s what the journalist is making for dinner.

For Lola (Anais Demoustïer), real name Charlotte, hooking not only pays for those student fees and a great flat, it gets her away from the projects she grew up in. For the Polish student Alicja (Joanna Kulig), selling her body has almost become an adventure itself. She doesn’t seem to mind the degradation; perhaps she even sees encounters with clients as her exploitation of them rather than the other way around.

These concepts must be phrased tentatively, however, because much of this depends on how one interrupts Binoche’s long gazes into space or the scenes of sex a viewer sees but she, of course, never did. There is even one flashback to her interview with Alicja, where the two get roaring drunk and eat pasta together in Alicja’s flat. Perhaps this is simply an interesting interviewing technique by the journalist-heroine but what the film’s female writer and director think this sequence means is not clear.

Everything is too easy in Elles. Selling one’s body for money is little more than a lark. The portrayal of bourgeois life in all its glorious emptiness is facile — and has been done to death in French movies anyway. The Mrs. Dalloway-like day of the heroine as she prepares for her dinner and ruminates on the implications of her article is just too neat and tidy.

In the end, Ellesdoesn’t have much to say concerning prostitutes, the bourgeoisie or journalism. The film is reasonably well made on a shoestring budget. Michal Englert’s lensing at times is a little too tight on actors’ faces and Françoise Tourmen’s editing a little too loose. The film goes dead in spots with not much happening. Then again, the filmmakers may think these dead moments are profound.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Slot Machine/Zentropa International Poland/Zentropa International Koln
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Joanna Kulig, Anais Demoustïer, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Krystyna Janda
Director: Malgoska Szumowska
Screenwriter: Tine Byrckel, Malgoska Szumowska
Producer: Marianne Slot
Director of photography: Michal Englert
Production designer: Pauline Bourdon
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska
Editor: Françoise Tourmen
Sales: Memento Films International
No rating, 100 minutes