Women’s fashion magazines have always believed that they can get away with pretty much anything by parading it under the name of ‘art’ or ‘investigative journalism’. A photo of a naked woman in such a magazine is considered beautiful and interpretive, whilst the same photo placed in a ‘lad’s mag’ is thought of as reprehensible and pornographic. The same could be said about Elles (2011), the new French film starring Juliette Binoche as an investigative journalist who freelances for the top-selling women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine ELLE. Masquerading under the misconception that it’s a hard-hitting drama concerning the unspoken world of young women who turn to prostitution in order to pay their way through university, this film is in reality just another voyeuristic trip into the seedy world of middle aged men who pay for sex and the way it destroys the lives of all those involved.
Anne (Binoche) is a journalist who freelances for women’s glossy magazines. She is currently working on a feature for the French edition of the trendy style bible ELLE, about young women who turn to high class prostitution in order to pay their way through university. As she digs deeper into the seedy world of the the upmarket call-girl she starts to unearth a world of secrets and strained relationships, which mirrors stark similarities in her relationship with her own husband and children.
Like the magazine for which Anne is working, ELLES may be beautiful to flick through, but it has very little depth beneath its glossy and attractive outward appearance. The film could be split into two distinct parts – that which focuses on the two students Charlotte and Alicja (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) and their rich ‘clients’, and that which deals with Anne and her family.
Demoustier and Kulig are excellent as the two young women who find themselves caught in a sordid world more through desperation than because they enjoy what they’re doing. However it is the way the film depicts the effect their secret lives have on their interaction with their boyfriend and mother respectively which is most poignant, making their characters the ones which the viewer has most feeling by the film’s conclusion.
Anne on the other hand comes over as the epitome of the affluent, modern, career obsessed woman, struggling with impending deadlines and her husband’s corporate dinner parties, whilst being eaten with guilt and frustration over her disintegrating family-life. Though Binoche gives a consummate performance as the pressurised Anne, you feel the actress who was stunning in such masterpieces as 1996’s Oscar winner The English Patient, is worth more than being reduced to playing a character who is little more than a voyeuristic writer getting the kicks through her work which are lacking in her private life.
In the film’s favour it is gorgeous to look at, with some beautifully dreamlike sequences set to rapturous classical music. However this does little to sweeten the bitter aftertaste left by its unappealing subject matter.