Provocative yet occasionally veering on the soporific, 'Elles' is a drama which yearns to be seen as a poignant tale on the modern woman. It features ideas and conversations about marriage, having control over one's sexuality, one's relationship with her kids and as its main focal point prostitution. The latter is really what the plot is about and hinted at in the title. It's quite a bit to cover in ninety-minutes and sadly, does not delve too far on one particular subject matter or dwell on them in any truly meaningful way. The filmmakers don't so much as want to consider the ethical or moral concerns of young women taking part in "the world's oldest profession" as much as simply bring it up for a frank and open discussion.
For the most part, the film does surprisingly well in balancing those topics in a mildly successful if still a tad on the bloated side piece of entertainment. Working from a script she co-wrote with Tine Byrckel, Polish filmmaker Ma?gorzata Szumowska tells the story as eloquently fractured shards of memory, like the debris of a lovely grand symphony we must piece back together. Seen from this artistic perspective, 'Elles' is a beautifully structured and highly expressive work. The narrative has a poetic rhythm that's hypnotic and engrossing, as if every scene is designed with emotional weight while also venting a great deal of sorrow. We could stop at any one moment in the film and examine how it bears the soul of someone feigning happiness, how it hides a sad, dejected truth.
If not for a story that feels like it lags in few places, 'Elles' would make a genuinely remarkable motion picture. And the film opens decent enough with a scene most every writer out there can quickly relate to as Juliette Binoche sits at a desk, staring blankly and frustrated at her computer monitor. The star of other fantastic films such as Kieslowski's 'Blue,' Minghella's 'The English Patient' and most recently in Kiarostami's 'Certified Copy' turns in an extraordinary performance as French journalist of ELLE magazine Anne. This is the day in the life of a mother of two very preoccupied boys and of a wife planning a special dinner to impress her husband's boss. She's also stressed by a deadline for her article on college student prostitution, which her editor just reduced in the last minute by several thousand words.
Ultimately, this is where the strength of Szumowska's film truly lies. Anne confronts the challenge of juggling family and career as she tries to maintain control and ready a house for this important feast, but her thoughts and concentration are continuously interrupted — along with the narrative flow — by the lives of two young female students unashamed by how they earn money and pay their tuition. The outspoken Alicja (Joanna Kulig) is a Polish economics major while the carefree Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) is an ambitious person in classe préparatoire. Their blunt stories reveal that the profession is not the stereotypical cesspool of perverts and depraved men, but rather sad, lonely and bored husbands wanting to satisfy unfilled fantasies.
As the day wears on, Anne is slowly consumed by memories of her conversations with the women and her life feels constrained and suffocating. Cinematographer Michal Englert shows the interior of Anne's home in dreary, steely blues, making it seem cold and sanitized, but the outside world is yellowish warm and empowering. And so it would seem Szumowska aspires to impassion something in her audience, particularly when we're allowed to see the darker consequences of Alicja and Charlotte's personal lives, which we can assume Anne doesn't know. And while the film is expressed in an inspired and rhythmic manner, whatever Szumowska's message is also engulfed by her attempt at sophisticated symbolism, feeling mostly shallow and indifferent in the end.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Elles' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc inside the standard blue keepcase. At startup, the disc goes straight to a static main menu with music.
'Elles' arrives to Blu-ray with a lovely 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that nicely complements the photographic intentions of Michal Englert and director Ma?gorzata Szumowska. The picture shows a mix of cold, steely blues that create a dull, sterilized feel and a warm yellowish appeal with very light sepia tones in some scenes. This doesn't affect the rest of the palette, as primaries remain bold and full-bodied, but contrast does seem somewhat softened by the cinematography although consistent with clean, crisp whites throughout. Black levels, however, are rich and lavish with excellent shadow delineation. Fine object and textural details are sharply rendered and distinct with healthy, revealing facial complexions, making this high-def transfer a lovely sight to an intriguing drama.
The real surprise in this drama is an excellent and pleasantly immersive DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Making terrific use of the surround speakers, the design employs a variety of discrete atmospherics with flawless panning effects, creating a very satisfying soundfield. Whether taking place outside or indoors, each scene features amusingly subtle sounds of birds chirping, the chatter of people at a park or cars honking in the middle of traffic. The classical music pieces used in the film beautifully widen the soundstage with crystal-clear clarity and nicely extend into the rears while a deep, hearty low bass lends it some weight. Dialogue is also fluid and well-prioritized for a first-rate lossless mix.
'Elles' tells the story of an investigative journalist whose article on prostitution has an effect on her personal life. Told as fractured memories and conversations during a busy day, the film features a remarkable performance by Juliette Binoche, but it ultimately feels bloated and engulfed by the director's focus on sophisticated symbolism. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation, but the dearth of supplements makes the package a rental at best.