This film was brought to my attention because although some of you might not have even known of its existence (until now of course), Elles is the film the whole Poland is talking about. Partly because of its ‘controversial’ theme, and partly because of its extremely bad reviews, Sponsoring (the Polish title) deserves at least a student length essay. And this is because somehow in the age of intellectual development and the feminist fight for equality, this badly directed pseudo artistic project has nothing to offer but an offensive, chauvinistic message with no story to support it. It is bad, bad, bad and I still feel anger running through my veins when I think about it. But let me get it straight. Here are three main reasons that make Elles utterly hateful.
Polish poster for Elles- just to let you know, both Krystyna Janda (one of the Poland’s greatest actresses) and Andrzej Chyra (also, critically acclaimed actor) get a line or two each, but it didn’t stop the creators to place their names proudly next to the main leads
1. The Characters
Elles has two major problems with its characters and both of them strongly influence the quality of the film. Even though the acting is generally good (generally, because although Juliette Binoche could play a cabbage and be amazing at it, she still manages to deliver a pretty embarrassing performance in a scene where she argues with the editor), the problem lies in the protagonists’ unpersuasive as well as stereotypical personalities.
Juliette Binoche plays Elle journalist who writes an article about students who become prostitutes in Paris. And right from the start it goes downhill. She befriends two girls- one middle-class, nice and pretty French lolita and a vulgar, loud and of course blonde Polish. We really don’t learn much about the reasons behind the girls’ choices and it’s partly because the film doesn’t really break any barrers but also because there’s not much talking about morals and human psyche in this film. It is rather a pseudo artistic combination of sex scenes through which we don’t actually learn anything about the girls nor Anne (the main lead). Anne herself asks pretty bland questions and her reactions to the girls’ answers are often ridiculously conservative. This is not how I imagine a serious interview. I think a journalist should try to remain objective and stay out of judgment but here Anne is simply shocked by what she is learning.
From the description of the movie I also learnt that through the interviews with the girls, the main characters rediscovers her own identity and realises that the bourgeoise life she lives is not very satisfying. Her marriage lacks passion and she distances herself from her apparently chauvinistic husband. Well, if I didn’t read this before the movie, there would be no way for me to find out that Anne is going through any inner struggles. She still smiles to herself while listening to Beethoven and she still has fresh croissants for breakfast. It seems that the article didn’t change anything in her life after all…well, apart from one thing…
2. The Story
…and that one thing brings us to the message of the movie. I have already accused Elles of being extremely offensive and here is why I think it is. Not only is the story itself bland, boring and pointless (voila! Małogorzata Szumowska managed to make sex boring and pointless!), but also it leads to one of the most awful conclusions I have ever seen on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware of the fact that every movie can be interpreted in million different ways, but when after having her needs completely ignored by her husband, Anne finally kneels in front of him in order to perform drunken fellatio saying that she wants to do something for her marriage, and he pushes her away disgusted only so the following day they can laugh and drink freshly squeezed orange juice at the table; the only thing that comes to my mind is that the director of this movie states clearly: All women are whores.
Elles have been accused of cheap feminism, but to me this feminism is exactly what is lacking in the film. The women portrayed in the movie are completely dependable on men- both mentally and materialistically. Although prostitution is presented as a trade, an adult exchange of needs; we know the girls feel ‘used’ and their profession makes them unhappy. Anne, an intellectual journalist also presents a servant position towards her husband. Whenever she is not writing the article or arguing with, we can guess male, editor; she cooks dinner for the party organised by her husband. When she looks sexy, she looks sexy for man and like the girls she decides to lose her morals in order to satisfy the man physically.
The idea is not controversial, but rather simply offensive. But that is not the only problem with the story.
3. The Storytelling
Elles is suppose to be a feature film, however, it simply lacks the story. Małgorzata Szumowska wanted to make a movie about the journalist’s developing connection with the girls and she decided to tell it in a form of interviews. And the second the first interview starts, the content gets lost.
We travel from sex scene to sex scene while listening to Anne’s outraged reactions to the girls’ immoral confessions, however, neither do we learn anything about Lola and Alicja nor does our knowledge about Anne’s life and thoughts develop. We leave the screening with the unchanged opinion on prostitution and with no reflection on the characters. It is disappointing especially because the topic like prostitution is a great potential for a thought provoking material (Belle de Jour).
Małgorzata Szumowska is often described in media as one of the most promising new European directors, however, in Elles I didn’t see the greatness so praised by others. Instead I saw a film that was failing on the very basic level- it was simply badly directed. Szumowska focuses on small details, just so she can inconsequently move to big, open spaces completely changing the intimate atmosphere she was obviously trying to create. Her characters are flat and stereotypical, and the levels of performances are unstable. Szumowska unsuccessfully combines artistic shots with conservative ones making the overall image aesthetically chaotic. And it could have been so much better…