Judge Gordon Sullivan is having dreams of Juliette Binoche.
The world's oldest profession still has its secrets.
It probably doesn't say something good about Western culture that when movies go to examine the lives (especially the sex lives) of women of privilege (i.e., the well-off and the beautiful), they find there nothing but emptiness. It probably says even worse things that so often when a contrast to such emptiness must be produced, filmmakers find it in prostitutes. The classic example is Belle de Jour, but that film is hardly alone in contrasting middle-to-upper-middle-class women as dissatisfied until they are exposed to the freedom and passion of prostitution—even if the oldest profession doesn't solve all their problems. Elles (Blu-ray) attempts to take this formula into the twenty-first century, with more explicit sex scenes and some excellent acting, but the fact that it has nothing new to say makes it an unsuccessful attempt.
Facts of the Case
Anne (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient) is a journalist for the French version of Vogue. She wants to write about the world of part-time prostitution, about those women who don't make prostitution a lifestyle or career, but who do it to make some extra money. After putting out an ad, Anne meets two young women. One is a Polish immigrant making some extra cash, and the other is a seemingly normal young woman who also likes the idea of a bit of disposable income. Anne makes a connection with both women, and after conversing with them, begins to re-examine her own sexual life.
I was once in a French cinema class with a good mix of American and French students. It was a class on contemporary cinema, and at one point Juliette Binoche came up. The American students had a largely tepid reaction—she hasn't done a lot of high-profile work in America since The English Patient—while the French students had a violently negative reaction. It took me a while to understand why, but it's clear that Binoche is someone who doesn't do things normally. She's sexy without being conventionally attractive. She's French without being totally loyal to French cinema; some of her best work has been in American, English, Polish, and Iranian films. She's also mixed high-profile art house/independent turns with more conventional films (like Son of No One).
She's also, for better or worse, the best thing about Elles. So, if you hate Juliette Binoche or aren't willing to give her a fair shake as Anne the disgruntled mother/journalist trying to make it in the world, then Elles is not for you. If, however, you're willing to give Binoche the benefit of the doubt (or are already a fan). Any time a woman, especially an older, established woman, takes on a roll that involves revealing anything sexual (especially a taboo like female masturbation), then words like "brave" get thrown around. That's partly true; Binoche's performance is brave here. Partly that's down to her willingness to "expose" herself both emotionally and physically in the film. There's more to the role than sexuality, and it's in those moments that Binoche wins me over. However, whether you're interested in her domestic life or her sexual (re)awakening, Binoche's Anne is the beating heart of this film. The other actresses deserve credit as well, but the way the story is constructed doesn't give them quite as much to do.
The film also doesn't shy away from its depictions of sexuality; the film earned a justified NC-17 (though it's not clear how this "unrated" cut differs from the NC-17 version that was screened theatrically in art houses in the States). For those who want to see a film that's mature in its handling of sexuality that also doesn't shy away from showing some skin, then Elles fits the bill. It's a (relatively) sophisticated film that also has some sex in it, which makes it an excellent option for those who don't want to get their nudity from explicit pornography or lowbrow sex comedies.
The Elles (Blu-ray) presentation also works in the film's favor. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is generally strong. The film looks intentionally soft, and this transfer captures that effect well. Colors are well-saturated, and grain is generally handled well. There's a bit of pixilation in a few scenes, but overall this is a fine presentation of the material. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track doesn't have much to do, but it handles the dialogue with a range and clarity that's impressive. Balance is always spot on and the occasional directional effects came off appropriately.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Oh, if only Elles had something more to say. The nudity and sexuality of Elles feels slightly edgy and contemporary. The idea that a dissatisfied mother would find sexual liberation after seeing the lives of prostitutes feels decidedly twentieth, if not nineteenth century. It sells the problems of both working mothers and prostitutes short, and while the sheer scandal of it might have worked in 1967 when Belle de Jour, came out, that doesn't play now. Instead, the problems in Anne's life feel like an excuse to have the sexuality in the film at all. I respect the fact that there's still power in the story of a woman recovering her sexuality, but Elles doesn't bring anything new to the table besides the performances of Juliette Binoche and her co-stars, which makes it feel like their work is being wasted rather than valued.
The one place where Elles (Blu-ray) falls down is the extras. We get a photo gallery, and the edited and unedited trailers for the film. That's it. For a film that involves such exposure on the part of the actresses, and was directed by one of the co-writers, it would be great to hear something from them about the experience of making such a raw film. The British Blu-ray includes a 10-minute interview that didn't make it onto this disc, which is a shame.
Elles isn't a bad film. It's an okay film with some great performances from Juliette Binoche and her female co-stars. For those willing to look past the fact that the film doesn't have anything new to say or anything new to do with those excellent performances, Elles (Blu-ray) offers some pleasures worth a rental.
Acquitted due to the strong performances of the female leads.
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