out of Five
Running time: 99
Despite a handful of good moments and strong performances from Binoche, Demoustier and Kulig, Elles struggles to say anything new and ultimately lacks direction, with the overall disappointment compounded by an unintentionally laughable final sequence.
What's it all about?
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, Elles is a French-Polish co-production set in contemporary Paris. Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a middle-class journalist for Elle magazine who's trying to finish a piece on two young women (Anaïs Demoustier as Lola and Joanna Kulig as Alicja) who have turned to prostitution in order to fund their university educations. At the same time, Anne is supposed to be preparing a fancy dinner for her husband's (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) work colleagues, but she's continually distracted by flashbacks to the stories of the two women.
The performances are excellent: Binoche is superb as Anne, generating intriguing chemistry with both Demoustier and Kulig, while also injecting a series of laughter-based character moments that make her seem warmly human, whether it's collapsing with hysterical laughter at being unable to open a bottle of wine, laughing with a mouth full of spaghetti (and spraying it everywhere) while having dinner with Alicja or being unable to stop giggling when she attempts to tell off her teenage son (Francois Civil as Florent) for being high.
The script throws in a number of explicit and bizarre sex sequences (ranging from a man pissing on Alicja to a client who just wants to serenade Lola with a naked guitar solo) and there's a clever moment where you see Lola happy and affectionate with someone and you assume it's her boyfriend, only for the man to pay her at the end, with her actual boyfriend turning out to be far less satisfactory in the bedroom department.
The main problem is that the film has nothing interesting to say about prostitution or the role of women, beyond Anne making some clumsy connections between the girls' experiences and her own. Consequently, any promising plot developments (Anne and Alicja seem to be on the verge of an affair at one point) get swiftly abandoned and the film meanders around aimlessly before culminating in a ludicrous final dinner table sequence that provokes unintentional laughter.
On top of that, the script is ultimately both confusing and frustrating, since the final scene explicitly raises the idea that Anne's flashbacks could all have been fantasy, leaving you with nothing to hold onto.
Despite some nice ideas and a superb performance from Juliette Binoche, Elles fails to engage on an emotional level and is ultimately undone by a confusing script and an unintentionally hilarious finale.