Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: ELLES: it's not about the money ... this time

There were a few choices on my Friday off but I picked this one because I felt like something a little darker and sharper than average. After I got out of the screening I realised it was International Women's Day and was very pleased with myself.

We begin with a blowjob. Man writhing on bed then track down to woman's head slowly bobbing at his crotch. It's all desaturated gunmetal grey like a chocolate ad but instead of a praline materialising in the corner of the frame as life's real colour we hear a young male voice call for his mother. Snap out!

Anne is a freelance investigative journalist who lives with her husband and two sons in a palatial apartment in what we might call a heritage listed neighbourhood of Paris. She's French so I can call her bourgeoise without sneering. She has an illtempered bicker with her son about what he should have for breakfast before deciding against another cigarette and looking at her computer's blank screen. She's been listening to recordings of interviews she's done with tertiary students who have turned to prostitution for income during their studies. She's having trouble shaping the article and the family around her is not helping. Still, she gets on with it.

Her day is not much more help as she has to prepare a dinner party for her husband's colleagues, try and find her teenage son who has been wagging school and cope with the potentially life changing thoughts she has elicited from two of her interviewees.

It's worth pointing out from the get go that this is not a Gaspar Noe plunge into depravity nor even an ice cold Hanneke stare at banal evil: it is a subtle unsharp mask that reveals the focus between the decisions and start that have brought Anne to her enviable lifestyle and those that might prove risky for the young women who taken this path.

A lot of the encounters reported by the two subjects of focus are quite positive to the extent of being erotic. These women, one of whom is studying economics, are models of organisation and serious about ensuring their income and maintaining the distinctions between work, study, family and partners. They are in business and appear to be successful.

If anything, their concerns are class based. At one point "Lola", sensing superiority in attitude from Anne is downcast and says: "You can smell it on me, can't you?" A few lines later she reveals that she meant her welfare family background growing up in public housing. Young Polish Alicia (I just wanted to write that string of capitalised words) guides Anne back into the tasty wilderness of youth and the vodka-dance they share to The Knife's Pass This On completely avoids the cheesiness that would drag it to the floor if this were an American movie.

The envy goes both ways and the sense of constraint follows. Anne, throughout the day that frames all these encounters, grows more restless by the hour as she puts the dinner party together and at one point feels the ache to be with some of the better clients her interviewees have told her about that she is suddenly imbibing and laughing with them. Snapping back to reality is such a disappointment that she stands and leaves the house.

While I was watching this in the dark of the cinema I kept wanting it to spark up and start peaking but the more I went through it the more I found in its carefully folded information and polished emotion. The two younger women are cast to provide a narrow but telling contrast. Their control over their subcareer and how that might benefit them outweighs the need another film might have of showing them degraded. (All this without a moment's recommendation of prostitution; as hot as the topic usually is, it's the character's ability to adapt that is on show here.)

And then there is Juliet Binoche who seems to have aged with beauty intact and gravitas in tow. She carries her maturity with a lack of screen vanity that her transatlantic colleagues only approach when they want a nomination. The moment when she breaks from her near constant stress and laughs it's like the sun coming out and announcing that everyone in the audience has won Tatts.  Long may she reign o'er us.

I suspect Elles will leave the local screens as it arrived, quietly and underappreciated. It probably won't be released on disc. SBS might program it. You should see it while you can. Not because it's worthy but because it will haunt you.

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