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Anne (Juliette Binoche), a well-off, Paris-based mother of two and investigative journalist for ELLE, is writing an article about student prostitution. Her meetings with two fiercely independent young women, Alicja (Joanna Kulig) and Charlotte (Anais Demoustier), are profound and unsettling, moving her to question her most intimate convictions about money, family and sex. Written by
Some of the sequences in Malgorzata Szumowska's film are quite difficult to view - especially the scene where one of the student prostitutes (Anaïs Demoustier) willingly allows herself to be urinated on by one of her clients, or has a champagne bottle thrust into her vagina. These moments are designed to emphasize the pitfalls of the whore's existence - even if both Charlotte and Alicja (Joanna Kulig) manage to make sufficient funds to support themselves in some style during their student lives.
Nonetheless Szumowksa reminds us that we should not judge their decision too harshly. By contrasting their lives with that of well- to-do journalist Anna (Juliette Binoche), who is writing an article for ELLE magazine about their lives, the director suggests that in many ways the prostitutes live a superior existence. They enjoy an independence that is denied to someone like Anna, who has to spend most of her leisure time caring for a feckless husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and her three children. ELLES is full of scenes where Anna is shown working alone in the kitchen, or talking on the phone to a disembodied voice. As the film closes, she is shown silently listening at a dinner party while Patrick and his friends prattle on about various subjects; in the end she grows so frustrated that she simply walks out of the house for a breath of welcome fresh air.
In contrast both Charlotte and Alicja enjoy a considerable degree of independence; they exert power over their (mostly middle-aged) clients, to the extent that they can determine in advance what they will do and what they will not do. The money they earn gives them the spending power to please themselves.
As the film progresses, so we see Anna becoming more and more enamored of the girls' lives. She is shown talking in the park to Charlotte; the two of them become quite close to one another, as denoted through a series of two-shots. While alone with Alicja in Alicija's apartment, Anna partakes of vodka (although claiming that she does not drink), and ends up on a passionate embrace with the younger woman. While alone in her own apartment, Anna pleasures herself in an extended scene, where Szumowska's camera focuses on her face as she gradually comes to orgasm. Sex gives her the kind of power that she can never enjoy either at work or during her family life.
In the end, however, that power proves illusory. The film ends with an extended shot of Anna sitting down to breakfast with her husband and two of her children - an image of familial normality that suggests mental as well as physical imprisonment. Although empathizing with the two girls, she can never enjoy their independence.
ELLES is a thought-provoking piece, shot in deliberately low-key style. Director Szumowska achieves some striking thematic effects, most notably through the use of music that often contrasts with the emotions of the characters shown on screen. At one moment Anna is shown walking morosely about her living-room; on the soundtrack we hear the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony - a homage to death. The grandeur of the music is set against the mundaneness of Anna's life; she would love to improve it, if only she could.
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