Risque business – Elles review


By Richard Haridy
June 25, 2013

Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska is certainly broaching some complex issues in her fourth picture, Elles. Investigations and depictions of prostitution have long been favoured by filmmakers from Steven Soderbergh to Luis Buñuel, but Szumowska admirably and provocatively, albeit unsuccessfully, finds a fresh tangent.

Juliette Bincohe plays Anne, a writer for Elle Magazine putting together a feature article on prostitution. Elles takes place over one day as Anne goes through her tape recordings of interviews with two different call girls whilst also attempting to prepare dinner for her husband and friends later on. We flash back and forth between Anne’s interviews, depictions of the girls’ experiences with customers, and Anne becoming increasingly frustrated in her Parisian apartment.


Elles grows problematic as it, at times, can be read as promoting prostitution as a liberating force for women. One moment late in the film connecting an act of sexual violence with another character’s sexual gratification is muddy at best and worrisome at worst.

I think, ultimately, the movie is not about sex work at all. The questionably voyeuristic and graphic depictions of the call girls interactions with men progressively feel like Anne’s own projections. As we discover how dysfunctional her relationship is with her husband, it becomes clear Szumowska is less concerned with prostitution as she is the importance of maintaining a healthy sex life in long term relationships.


Juliette Binoche impresses here, committing wholly to a rich and difficult role. Szumowska constructs some striking visuals, even if she frequently succumbs to many frustratingly vapid moments, including a banal utilisation of a Beethoven piece that has been criminally overused in recent years.

Elles is undeniably challenging, courageously delving into some immensely messy issues surrounding sexuality and the ways men and women barter in relationships. However, it feels too contradictory at its core to be truly satisfying. Szumowska may be happy to sit on the fence, asking questions and highlighting the contrary nature of human sexuality, but this indecision results in some unnecessarily dubious moments. At least Elles will provoke interesting discussion amongst all who view it.


Elles is now available on Quickflix.

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