Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
If Malgoska Szumowska‘s Elles proves one thing, it’s that the magnificent French actress Juliette Binoche, who’s so often gifted with richly complex characters (Abbas Kiarostami‘s Certified Copy, to name the latest example), can be just as fascinating and evocative whilst toying with subpar material. The character she’s given here — Parisian journalist Anne, who finds herself caught in the thick of an assignment centered around student prostitutes thirsting for rapid income — has room for potential, but Szumowska‘s concerns are so confused and scattershot that any chance of the characterization arriving at a satisfying epiphany is evaporated.
But Binoche keeps you watching, and Szumowska, for all her on-the-page agitation, presents herself as a capable filmmaker with a penchant for staging scenes with the intention of heavily evoking the sensory experiences of her characters. This is evident from moment one, which positions itself as an aggressive close-up on an unidentified man receiving off-screen fellatio. Such a depiction is scarcely motivated from a narrative perspective — and, indeed, much of the film suffers from this gratuitously uneven fascination with depicting sexual relations barbarically and explicitly — but the primal impact of Szumowska‘s intrusiveness lingers, and keeps the film moving even when it appears bound to hit a standstill.
What keeps this particular piece from being yet another routine Elle document for Anne is that the experiences of her interview subjects fill a nagging void in her own life. Her son is a lazybones pothead who disregards his mother as an uptight workaholic, whereas her two guinea pigs — Alicja (Joanna Kulig) and Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) — treat her with a consuming immediacy. Alicja’s more of a wrecked wildcard, offering Anne the alcohol-fueled seduction that she no longer gets from her husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), while the sweet-faced Charlotte embodies a pure sensitivity that seems wholly at odds with her under-the-curtain occupation.
If that quick rundown reads like an encouraging set-up, that’s because it mostly is — the hindrances lie in the inconsistent precision Szumowska applies to each narrative thread. It’s overwhelmingly Anne’s own domestic sphere, interestingly enough, that’s treated like a half-welcome guest to a dinner party. Since the character of her son is only barely developed, his dismissal of her overworked anxiety feels like exactly what it is — a fleeting, pot-induced challenge of authority — and nothing more. The wonderful Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, meanwhile, brings a resigned sadness to his character that, because of the role’s scantily-written quality, isn’t fully capitalized on.
It’s really Alicja and Charlotte who share the most time with Binoche. (That is, when they’re not carrying their own scenes as horrifically helpless teenagers thrust into the homes of lustfully deranged husbands — you won’t be questioning the NC-17 billing much when a shot of a man relieving himself on a kneeled-down Alicja is merely the tip of the iceberg.) The drawback of these interactions, however, is that Binoche‘s reactions are kept most genuine and tangible when she’s conversing with her cohorts face-to-face. When the film finally shifts to focusing almost exclusively on Anne’s frantic preparation of a meal for her husband’s fussy business partners, the images, like the one of Anne pleasuring herself on the couch while classical numbers occupy the soundtrack, are far less grounded and convincing.
Still, the film, because of its maker’s demonic representation, remains an experience that’s difficult to reject outright. Szumowska may have confounded herself into forgetting what she was trying to say in the first place — resulting in a character arc that’s as clustered as it is falsified — but Elles is a projection of the fact that Szumowska at least has the tools to say something. For her next venture, then, pinning down the page-based construction should be the primary area of concern through which all else flows. And if that backfires, she can always call on a superlative presence like Binoche to keep things from falling through entirely.
Elles is playing at Tribeca and opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 27th.
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