Thursday, May 3, 2012

Prostitutes and other working women

How you react to Elles -- director Malgorsata Szumowska's lingering look at a Parisian journalist (Juliette Binoche) who's writing an article about prostitution -- depends on what you think of the ways in which Szumowska has portrayed the film's prostitutes. Elles focuses on two bright and breezy young women (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who seem unusually confident about the way in which they earn their money.

Each of these women finds herself in at least one situation that's either physically damaging or emotionally abusive, but for the most part each seems to take her work in stride. Each chooses her own clients. Each feels a little sorry for the mostly older men who use her services. These attractive young characters can seem as if they were contrived solely to counter stereotypical images of prostitutes, but they're usually in good spirits when we see them.

That's more than can be said for Binoche's frazzled character. Binoche's Anne is raising two sons -- one who loses himself in video games and another who smokes too much pot. She's also dealing with a husband who expects her to prepare lavish dinners for his boss, and she's trying to write the magazine article about prostitution, a task that seems to be troubling her greatly.

The only time Binoche's Anne seems happy and relaxed is when she's in the company of one or the other of the prostitutes whom she's interviewing for her article. She's able to laugh with them in a way that she can't at home. She's even turned on by some of the stories her hooker subjects tell her.

Szumowska has said that the prostitutes in her movie are realistically depicted, that today's young women can become prostitutes without pimps. They can choose their clients. The Internet has replaced walking the streets.

Maybe so, but film begs us to ask a painfully obvious question: Which is worse, happy prostitution or a miserable, hypocritical bourgeouis existence? Szumowska, who includes lots of explicit scenes between prostitutes and their customers, doesn't gain enough by bringing Anne and these young prostitutes into the same movie. What seems daring on the surface turns into an act of thematic reduction rather than expansion. Throughout, I kept wondering what a director such as Catherine Breillat,* who also has explored sexuality and its attendant issues, might have done with similar material.

Some of Breillat's films: *36 Fillette (1988); Romance (1999); Parfait amour! (1996) and Brève traversée (2001).

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