Le Movie Snob is delighted to recommend the new French movie “Elles,” opening April 27 and starring France’s greatest actress, Juliette Binoche. (désolée Mlle Deneuve) Those who like movies with that can tell uncomfortable stories that don’t resort to use shock tactics will be grateful for this cinematic experience.
Binoche plays Anne, a successful international journalist. Her life is enviable, accessorized with a loving, successful husband; two healthy children; a spacious (even by Parisian standards) apartment that looks staged by La Roche Bobois; Jean Lafont eyeglasses; and a Jérôme Dreyfuss Billy bag (the chef d’œvre of handbags). We meet her as she’s working on an article for Elle magazine. It should be noted that the French Elle is different than its American cousin; in France it’s a weekly publication that emphasizes writing more than fashion.
Knowing this, you won’t be distracted by the gravity of her subject: investigating young women who feel compelled to work as prostitutes, mainly to fund their studies. She focuses on two: a French girl from the suburbs who wants the economic privileges Anne herself enjoys and a Polish immigrant whose academic ambition is met with indifference. She poses as a john by phone, then quickly offers compensation to earn their trust and mitigate their anger. She is kind as she interrogates, offering non-judgmental female compassion that neither has known.
Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska deftly jumps back and forth in time so we are able to sustain our empathy with the young women as they engage in acts that test it. This way the disparities are navigated for the audience by Anne. Her reactions astonish even herself as she risks becoming too involved with her desperate protagonists.
Elles in French means they or them, and it’s interesting that the word is pronounced exactly as its singular cousin, the name of the magazine. At the beginning of the movie, most likely we are all perched where Anne is, studying them. But as the story develops, and we come to recognize that ugliness permeates all levels of society, are they really different than we? Aren’t we them?
WARNING: This movie contains extremely graphic sex scenes, well beyond what one would expect from an R-rated film, even beyond “Last Tango in Paris.” They are so graphic that I can’t imagine any American actress (including Angelina Jolie) doing these scenes, despite the fact that their usual justification that “it was necessary for the story” would become a statement of truth.
With this caveat, be careful in your selection of companion and screening time. You might want to avoid the sold out opening weekend shows that are usually packed with old Jews who will think “Golden Shower” is the name of a new Chinese restaurant. (Yes, that was a hint.) Likewise, it’s the perfect movie to recommend to the insufferable Francophile, cinephile, or other-phile erudite idiot (we all know at least one, n’est-ce pas?). Enjoy the spectacle as their role of ambassador of French sensibilities is put to the test. (Bonus points when you point out that sensibility does not mean sensibilité). Please share their moments of squirm, merci.