Juliette Binoche gets all hot under the collar (messing up her favourite Chanel shirt in the process) as Anne, a journalist for the French edition of Elle, juggling domesticity with two sons and a lacklustre marriage to her wealthy businessman husband who seems more intent in getting his sexual kicks via his laptop than from his wife.
Home alone through the day, she’s is in the middle of writing a piece about two university students who are moonlighting as high-class prostitutes to fund their studies. The girls (one is French, the other Polish) and their tales of dalliances with a variety of affluent clients stirs a longing in Anne, who is growling increasingly tired of his unsatisfying home life. Delving further into her subject’s lives, she strives to break free from her bourgeois shackles.
Elles is a solid if unremarkable tale of middle-class in conflict which is made all that more interesting and memorable by an (unsurprisingly) fantastic turn by Binoche. Framed in close-up throughout, she can turn the mundane practice of tending to household chores into a highly watchable and riveting exercise. Now 48, the actress is still able to dominate the screen with that same haunted beauty which served her so well in Three Colours: Blue, almost two decades back.
She’s ably supported by both her female co-stars. Joanna Kulig as foreign student Alicja is the more forthright and bolshie of the two (and very accommodating towards her ‘assignments’), while the delicate and waif-like Charlotte (the lovely Anaïs Demoustier) is less enthused by her job. Despite their somewhat contentious lifestyle, the actresses inject believability into their situations, gaining the audience’s sympathy throughout. The film doesn’t shy away from the sometimes worryingly unpredictable situations that could occur with that chosen side career.
It’s a shame the material doesn’t quite match the committed performances, and events meander along in a mildly engaging, if uneventful way as the narrative jumps back and forth between Anne in her sterile, spacious Parisian apartment and the flashbacks of her interacting with her subjects. The film is peppered with some fairly sexually-explicit scenes as the young students recount their experiences, but these mostly lack any real eroticism and jar a little with the rest of the restrained, buttoned-down atmosphere.
An interesting scene towards the end (where an exasperated Anne takes a minute to humorously imagine the girl’s customers around her dinner table instead of her husband’s dour business associates) hints at what might have been if director Małgorzata Szumowska had loosened things up a little more and interpreted Anne’s conflicted psyche in a more abstract manner, but for the majority of the running time, we’re left with a well-acted, confidently-shot tale which doesn’t really cover new ground or shed any further light regarding the wants and desires of this particular social demographic.