Anne (Juliette Binoche), a married middle-class journalist, is writing a hard-hitting exposé on prostitution. (Her outlet is, no joke, the French edition of Elle. Synergy, people!) The college-student interviewees: French girl-next-door type Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and an exotic Polish immigrant, Alicja (Joanna Kulig). Unlike the subjects of Michael Glawogger’s indictment of flesh-peddling, Whores’ Glory (coincidentally also opening this week), both enjoy what seems to be a fairly comfortable existence. Sure, they will occasionally be raped with champagne bottles and urinated upon—there’s a reason the film is rated NC-17—but for Anne, their lives somehow suggest a compelling alternative to her bourgie routine. For filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska, if even casual everyday exchanges are sexualized for women, all men have laptops filled with porn, and females are viewed as belles de jour regardless of their position or profession, why not make some money in the process?
If that last sentence strikes you as fist-raisingly righteous and head-slappingly confusing, then you’ve already got a great sense of what watching Elles is like. That’s not to say that Binoche doesn’t do her best to humanize a desperate-housewife caricature, or that Szumowska’s contradictory attempts to dig into hypocritical social standards while throwing a few bones to the raincoat crowd aren’t fascinating in fits and starts. But titillation and tentative stabs at gender studies do not a cogent cri de coeur