The Mother and the Whores

04/26/2012 4:00 AM |

Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

Opens April 27

A loose collection of half-baked ideas that even the great Juliette Binoche’s magnetism can’t pull into a coherent whole, Elles reworks the oft-drawn parallel between housewife and hooker without saying much of interest about either one.

Anne (Binoche), a well-off Parisian wife, mother, and journalist, is working on a story for Elle magazine about college students who have sex for money. The film crosscuts between Anne’s daily routines and those of two students she’s interviewing, the demure Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and the boundary-smashing Alicja (Joanna Kulig). We also see Anne interviewing the two younger women, fielding their own sometimes aggressive questions, and, increasingly, just hanging out with them. In one long scene like something out of an Adrian Lyne male-fantasy movie, which feels unconnected to anything that happens before or afterward, Anne and Alicja stuff noodles in their faces, laugh, get drunk, and make out like giddily transgressive tweens at a slumber party.

Binoche’s trademark rapt and loving gaze makes the younger women seem worth listening to, but it’s not at all clear what, if anything, they’re saying. The snippets we get of what they do and how they feel about it don’t add up to a clear portrait of the two girls, let alone establish a coherent point of view or make some broader point about prostitution or women’s lives.

Charlotte’s mild manner and expressive face make her appear to be easy to read, and judging by the modest apartment she shares with a boyfriend her own age and the housing project she grew up in, her motives for hooking are probably simple: She needed a way to put herself through college. But we almost never hear what she thinks of her work, even after we see her get anally raped with a champagne bottle.

Alicja, who has used prostitution as a route to the comforts of haute-bourgeois life, is more opaque. What we see of her encounters with her middle-aged clients makes it look as if she likes her work, finding it easy, empowering, and sexually fulfilling. But the cauldron of rage always bubbling just below her glossed-up surface keeps boiling over, making you wonder what’s pissing her off. When her mother comes to visit and tries to talk about where all these nice things are coming from, she just storms out, leaving her—and us—to ponder the meaning of her sullen silence. Does she see prostitution as a self-destructive or rebellious route she was forced into by her mother’s neglect? (In an early flashback to her arrival in Paris from Poland, we see her call home to ask for money, hanging up in anger when her mother doesn’t come through.) Is she perfectly happy with what she’s doing, just angry at the judgments it brings down on her? Or what?

And what about Anne, who stalks through her life in a state of near-perpetual annoyance and distraction, except when she is with the girls, around whom she becomes tender and solicitous, the ideal mother? The last scene of the movie, which plays under the closing credits, show her family sharing an apparently harmonious breakfast in their lovely, light-drenched dining room. Has Anne experienced some epiphany that makes her happier with her life? Is she sitting on an emotional landmine that’s about to explode? Or neither of the above? If that were a question on a test I was taking, I’d have to leave it blank.