Friday, 11 May 2012

Elles - A Film of Two Versions

So I saw Elles the other Sunday. You may need to check which version your local art-house is playing, because I think there are two. They look the same, but somewhere there's a subtle difference.

Elles is about Juliette Binoche writing an article about two students (Anais Demoustier from the bainlieus and Joanna Kulig from the Polish tower blocks) studying in Paris, who work as prostitutes. They get their dates through an Internet site, so they don't have pimps, and they don't have drug problems, and they seem to be studying as well. They have flats you and I would like to have, and Joanna Kulig has a LOT of shoes as well as an amazing pair of natural breasts. The clients range from a hot young man to an abusive creepy guy to a guy who breaks into tears when faced with Anais Demoustier's lower regions (Even ten years ago I wouldn't have understood that, but I do now.) 

Meanwhile, our Juliette has a husband who keeps answering his mobile in the middle of supposedly important conversations, an older son who's skipping school (because his parents are such great role models) and a much younger son who plays computer games. The younger son is there to indicate that even after a chunk of years, Juliette and her husband were still enjoying a full marriage. Hubby and older son have porn on their "ordi's" (the diminuitive of "ordinateur", so presumably slang for "laptop").  She's a workaholic, deadline-fearing, control freak who feels her actual life is betraying the bourgeois dream she must have had when she got married. Binoche is the go-to actress to play complicated women who you know would be unbearably irritating after an actual whole day, and I suspect we weren't supposed to sympathise with her, but to see her as the problem, not the victim.

The film I saw seemed to have three main positions. First: "the girls come from poverty, can make enough money to get nice flats and things while studying, and you're going to expect them not to? How much do you know about the world in 2012 exactly?"  Second: "so guys go to hookers, and when what they have at home is Juliette, what exactly do you expect them to do?" Third: "sure some of the guys are creeps and some are nice, and some are sad and some are slightly weird but fun. You were expecting what, exactly?"

The film I saw was a stylish (code for "lots of designer clothes, really good photography and set design") but emotionally realistic piece of story-telling - even if it is about a very small niche in Parisian society. I thought it showed the rewards and risks of the lives the girls were leading quite well, and it didn't fall into all the tired old cliches about up-market prostitution.

Other people saw a movie that didn't get with the program and give us those tired old cliches about up-market prostitution. As in "Szumowska provides lurid scenes of perverted sex, but she offers no new insight into the sordid world of prostitution and the dangers sex workers face" or "In case you have forgotten, all women are prostitutes, and all men are johns" or "Szumowska attempts to draw an equivalence between Anne’s line of work and that of her young subjects, but fails to make anything meaningful stick. Elles is the polar opposite of Steve McQueen’s Shame: while that film was a scorching tract on the commodification of desire, this is just smut with a baccalauréat". The last reviewer clearly imbibes the Kool-Aid and is looking for a job in the British Film Industry - Shame was a load of cliched codswallop with zero insight into anything. 

This movie commits the cardinal Anglo left-wing feminist sin of failing to show women as victims, the cardinal Anglo misandrist sin of sympathy to men, and the cardinal Anglo female solidarity sin of being on the side of hot young girls against tired and dishevelled wives. I stress the "Anglo" bit, because anyone who has met Polish women will know that they don't really connect with all those Anglo views. Somewhere in this movie is an understanding for all the hot girls who cashed in their hotness while they could - and if there's one thing Anglo misandrists hate more than men, it's hot girls who cash in.

A recurring device through the movie is the use of classical music to indicate that our Juliette is having a fantasy sequence. This would make the happy-family ending - where everyone is sitting round the breakfast table, in contrast to the harried and un-communal real breakfast at the start - a complete fantasy. In which case we can guess that things are not working out well. I suspect that the film-makers had to compromise at points, and this ambiguous happy ending was one such compromise.

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