Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska co-produced Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. While Elles, which she co-wrote (with Tine Byrckel) and directed, has little in common with that film’s unique brand of hysterical psychodrama and doom-prophesying foxes, it does share a conviction in the fundamental, sometimes hostile divide between the sexes. Elles is racy and often sexy, but underneath that simmers an old-school feminist anger. Relationships are all a transaction in the world of Szumowska’s drama, the particular type of transaction determined by whether a woman has chosen the path of a wife or of a prostitute.
Playing at peak frazzle, Juliette Binoche picked the former, and is trying to balance her job as a reporter with the fulltime homemaker and mothering duties her businessman husband expects her to shoulder without his assistance. She’s working on an article about students who support themselves by working as escorts, and her interviews with two girls—the demure Anaïs Demoustier and the spiky Joanna Kulig—are intercut with glimpses of them at work, as well as her own harried preparations for a dinner party. Binoche, wearing rumpled blazers and glasses, initially speaks with her subjects with a not-quite-concealed sense of disapproval—she expects tales of degradation and victimization. Instead, they assure her that their clients are normal, generally stable men who like to talk and relax as much as to partake in more carnal activities.
The contrast between the journalist’s life and the call girls’ is stark and ungainly. Binoche, deeply committed as always, frets over a hot stove and the behavior of her teenage son while her husband sighs “Promise me just for tonight, you won’t say your feminist stuff?” The prostitutes, on the other hand, enjoy financial and sexual liberation, though it’s accompanied by danger—two encounters turn from pleasant to ugly in the blink of an eye, and one of the girls faces a confrontation of a different sort when her mother guesses how she’s been making money. Binoche becomes fond and protective of her interviewees, sensing more in common with them than with her family waiting at home. Elles’ sense of growing, delirious distress—in one giddy scene, Binoche envisions her dinner-party guests turning into her interviewees’ past clients—overcomes its schematic and outdated approach to female sexuality, in which women are virgins or whores, and lose either way.