Jean-Luc Godard made VIVRE SA VIE in 1962, at the relative beginning of his feature film career as a French New Wave icon and cinema provocateur. It stars his then-wife, the beautiful Anna Karina, as a Paris hooker who famously "sells her body but not her soul." As this hails from Godard's insanely prolific "cinephile period", it's no stretch to acknowledge that premise the stuff of silver screen fantasy. He walks the line between objectification and awe as he lovingly lingers on shots of Karina's face, her hair, her essence. She is alive' vibrant through and through. A creature of pure romanticism. Naturally, one would do well to think twice before considering this an authentic portrait of a typical French prostitute, but this is nonetheless one of Godard's best films. But VIVRE SA VIE is not the film I'm here to review.
From Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, ELLES is a very blunt dramatic French/Polish/German co-production as it takes a different approach to the same broad topic. The prostitutes witnessed in this film may've seen Anna Karina in VIVRE SA VIE so effortlessly maintaining herself while also selling herself to whomever for whatever. More likely, they've never actually seen the fifty-year-old black and white classic, but have nonetheless absorbed the moral fiber of it and it's surrounding culture. To hear them detail their work, their souls are completely uncompromised in what they do, as it's clearly "just sex". But look into their glassy eyes and you'll see a different story.
Juliette Binoche is Anne, a woman of duality: She's a frazzled wife and every-mom by day, a consumed Elle Magazine writer by later day, working on an eye-opening tell-all piece about two young student prostitutes. The first, Charlotte, (Anaïs Demoustier) is a naïve girl next door. The second, Alicja (Joanna Kulig), is pre-maturely world-weary and initially desperate for cash. Both find footing if not comfort in the world's oldest profession, detailing their inner thoughts and outer exploits to Anne. Anne is apparently a writer of immersion, propelling her own mindset into the topic at hand initially from a place of human interest, but inevitably it leads her to a place of vicarious voyeurism. As things break down in the personal lives of Charlotte and Alicja, Anne becomes all the more enamored with her subject(s).
Her living space is fifty shades of grey, lacking any colorful sign of a fulfilling life. Even as she befriends, interviews, and transcribes her subjects, pursuing their humanity on the surface, while in truth is a bit turned on by what she's hearing, she must balance the mundane with the sensational, the sensual. When she steps away from her work, she's a wreck: She spaces off the meal she's cooking by tearing through the house seeing to various odds and ends, the handheld camera following her the whole time. She habitually pushes her way around a large obtrusive plush Spider-Man, probably a carnival prize that is clearly half abandoned for lack of a better place to dwell in this house. She moves on to the bathroom where she haphazardly sprays air freshener, no doubt to cover the odiferous dumpy smell lingering thanks to some other member of her family. Seconds later she's back at the stove, absent-mindedly burning herself a little bit, causing her to slow down, if only maybe twelve percent. It is through this woman's efforts whom we view the prostitutes in their personal, private, and professional lives - all of which run together in unsettling ways.
But wait - when the Binoche narrative abruptly switches to a prolonged segment about one of the girls, are we really
seeing it through Anne's mind's eye, or is this the true reality of the prostitutes, unfiltered? Whatever the case, ELLES has a way of making the viewer feel like a bit of an anonymous eavesdropper - a safe voyeur - into the graphic sex lives of these people. The sex is never fulfilling, but like them, we feel stuck there.
ELLES postures as a tale of humanity rather than morality, but in it's strained and honest telling of these characters' exposed humanity, it can't help but be both. Like Steve McQueen's SHAME, ELLES ventures exclusively into the darker trappings of sex, revealing how its chronic misuse is a both a quiet epidemic and fundamentally damaging. Likewise, both films subsequently ignore that there is a fulfilling and positive side to sex, perhaps resulting in an unintended different kind of puritanical demonization of physical intimacy - Both McQueen and Szumowska, however unintentionally, seem to be saying that sex is a painful and dangerous dead-end.
As two sides of very similar coins - SHAME the male perspective, ELLES the female - both earn their American NC-17 ratings without ever being sexy about their sex. The performances in ELLES are bold and altogether immediate, generating certain empathy, particularly for the girls. The film is subpar in numerous ways, even as it stumbles over the vestige of Anna Karina's defiant and utterly non-existent hooker of yore to show that the call girl's troubled life is very few shades of any color.
- Jim Tudor
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