In Elles, Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a journalist for Elle magazine in Paris. She undertakes a job investigating prostitution amongst female students struggling to pay their tuition fees.
Interviewing two young women in particular, the film documents her struggle with the emotional impact of what is being discussed, and what these young women are subjecting themselves to.
Back-dropped against her privileged lifestyle as a housewife and writer it becomes evident the type of men paying for sex fit the demographic of wealthy husbands who are bored with family life, a description her husband could easily fit.
The accounts from the women are explicitly played out, never straying too far from discomfort as we are subject to the absurd requests, fetishes and demands of their clients. Claiming to enjoy the attention, empowerment and money being received from these usually older men, the two women only share glimpses of the difficulty and shame that comes with the territory.
The impact of these developments on them is often limited and as an audience we are too often expected to reach our own conclusions for what happens on screen.
The film focuses on Anne’s inner-turmoil as she realises the demographic of men seeing these girls are bored husbands and fathers, a scenario she sees in her own partner and their struggling relationship. I would have liked to see more about how the other women deal with the psychological effect selling themselves might have on their professional and personal lives.
Unfortunately a lot is introduced but not unexplained, it left me wondering why the women are indulged in only a voyeuristic and physical way, perhaps it was a deliberate intention of director Malgorzata Szumowska, but all confrontations are cut short, and as a result no one is accountable for their actions. Instead we are forced to endure the middle class guilt Anne faces on behalf of these two young girls as she writes her article.
As an insight into women who sell themselves, the term ‘prostitution’ in this context is a little strong, as it seems the young women are ‘escorts’, who charge men for their time as well as for sex. You only have to see a film as brutal as London to Brighton to realise the contrast in the two definitions, with Elles opting for a fairly glamorous portrayal of the latter.
As a male viewer I found an empty and wasted opportunity to highlight how irresponsible getting into such potentially dangerous work can be for young women, especially when done so in secret.
It ended up like an ‘erotic beginners guide’ to prostitution as a solution for financial difficulty, without showing any exit strategies, or real reasons to stop. If the primary issue is that college tuition in France is too expensive, no alternative ways of earning money are suggested, for example, contrasting images of other female students working regular jobs.
The lack of confrontation made Elles a very indulgent exercise in demonstrating male approaches to prostitution, highlighting patriarchy in its very ugliest form but doing not much else to address the issues raised.