Juliette Binoche as a journalist researching female prositution in “Elles”
Directed by Malgoska Szumowska
Written by Malgoska Szumowska and Tine Byrckel
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Joanna Kulig, Anaïs Demoustier, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing
Run Time: 96 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
Back in the 80s, you couldn’t watch a European movie that didn’t have some woman pulling her pants down and peeing on the toilet. Is the sight of a woman masturbating as similarly familiar now? Watching Meg Ryan pleasuring herself on her tummy in Jane Campion’s “In the Cut” was shocking but appropriate in 2003. And then there was Nicole Kidman in “Margot at the Wedding” doing the same thing at bedtime, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Secretary,” having problems finding an adequately stimulating fantasy while doing it. When Lars von Trier filmed Charlotte Gainsbourg’s full frontal masturbation—completely nude—in “Antichrist,” it looked anything but pleasurable; is was sex as self-torture.
And now we have Juliette Binoche getting off on the floor of her locked bathroom, the only place she’s sure her kids won’t accidentally catch her. It’s not erotic, or funny, or angst-ridden, or even methodical, like scratching an itch. It’s just a sad scene of a wife and mother whose only escape is on the bathroom floor.
The masturbating scene is certainly not the most shocking one in the movie “Elles,” a film that contains a number of disturbing sex scenes, but it does show Binoche’s face as she has an orgasm in a manner that reminds us that sex is not all lovey-dovey soft, romantic caresses—it can also be raw and animalistic and, in the end, unsatisfying.
Female sexuality is a subject that has proven baffling enough to stump the best of male minds, from Freud to D.H Lawrence, and in films from Bergman to Godard. Even we women don’t always understand what gets us aroused, or whether we want to have sex at all. Maybe it’s a man-made construct that we have adapted to, or maybe it’s just hormones.
Thankfully, in the past few years, the sex lives of women has become the focus of women directors, and the feminine perspective has proven enlightening, especially in its uncovering of just how confusing we are. There was Catherine Corsini’s “Leaving,” in which Kristin Scott Thomas rediscovers pure lust at middle age, though its ambivalent ending leaves us wondering whether sexual passion is worth the ride. There is also Miranda July’s character in “The Future,” who stumbles into an affair without falling in love, her sex drive being spurred by taboo and escapist fantasies rather than the “normal” channels of physical attraction.
And now there’s “Elles,” a film directed and co-written by Malgoska Szumowska, a young Polish director who tackles the subject with intelligence and sensitivity in this, her fourth feature. In “Elles,” Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a middle-aged wife and mother of two sons living what seems an ideal bourgeois existence in Paris. Besides having attained those two pillars of feminine achievement, Ms. Binoche is also an accomplished journalist whose beauty and composure—not to mention a good-looking husband—would make us jealous if it weren’t for the film’s constant subtle reminders that it is perhaps empathy we should be feeling. By the time we are made aware of the extent of the couple’s lack of intimacy, we have been subjected to some harsh realities that remind us that whatever fancy car you’re driving, there still could be a mess under the hood.
During the course of the film, Anne conducts frank and often disturbing interviews with two very young women in Paris who have chosen prostitution as a means to make a living. The subject of women and sex can’t be addressed without bringing up the idea of the origins of female sexuality as an offshoot of submission and subjugation—and women gaining freedom by subjugating themselves for money. The stories these young women tell of their sexual encounters might put any woman off sex, if it weren’t for the fact that such tales might also turn us on. Malgoska Szumowska knew exactly what she was doing when she juxtaposed the story of these prostitutes for the bourgeoisie with the story of a bourgeois woman. It turns out they have more in common than one might think.
The thin line between a woman who finds inherent pleasure in submitting to the pleasuring of men, and a woman who gets something in exchange for such favors, is also not new to film. Bunuel’s “Belle du Jour” showed Catherine Deneuve tied up, and loving it. Godard presented a more Marxist view of suburban housewife prostitutes in “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her,” and Chantal Akerman’s feminist polemic “Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” gave new meaning to the word repression with its study of a primly conservative widow inviting men to her bed in order to pay the rent. On the other side, male-driven stories honored the business side of prostitution, as in Julie Christie’s brothel owner in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” and Jane Fonda’s call girl in Alan Pakula’s “Klute.” Here, the male-driven film canon is replete with examples.
Like the business-savvy Kitty in “Gunsmoke,” the young women in “Elles” may appear unfazed by any moral conflicts or even the gross factor of having sex with strangers—some older than their fathers—but they do show signs of wear nonetheless, and the director eschews niceties by forcing us to watch some graphic scenes of them submitting to certain sexual favors akin to torture techniques. The shock factor may put off some, especially men who might feel uncomfortable having their sex portrayed with such cruel strokes (including male film critics—this film has been panned by so many of them) but just go to porn sites and see what it is men get off on, or talk to a few prostitutes yourself. And, just to be fair, even “nice” women aren’t excluded from the “secret” world of “dirty sex.” This is where “Elles” rises above the rather one-sided concerns of its thesis, and excels in Juliette Binoche’s portrayal of a woman who lives with the hypocrisies of playing the feminine role within the confines of a male-dominated bourgeois society while remaining fiercely independent. Binoche’s performance is an amazing mixture of sexual need, reserved composure, and barely suppressed anger—a woman living in an imperfect world.
It is still a man’s world—not just within the macho French culture that “Elles” portrays—and women have to live in it. We may be far from the middle ages, but we still have those penises to deal with. As the saying goes, it’s complicated, but I can assure you—envy has nothing to do with it.