Monday 23 March 2015


Elles A’ Poppin’

France/Poland/Germany 2011
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska
Artificial Eye Blu Ray Zone B

Elles is another movie I acquired as a blind buy because a) it was very cheap on Blu Ray in Fopp and b) it had a striking image of Juliette Binoche on the front cover. Binoche is an actress whose cinematic presence I first became acquainted with on an “after college trip” to the ODEON cinema in Shaftsbury Avenue, London, back in 1988 to see Philip Kaufman’s marvellous adaptation of Milan Kundera’s great novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was in that screening that I fell in love with both the young Binoche and her female co-star in the movie, Lena Olin. I’ve been following her work, casually, on and off over the intervening years but, for me, she is one of the all-time great French actresses and so a quick read of the back cover convinced me to pick this one up off the shelf and bring it back home with me.

In the film, Juliette plays Anne, a working wife and mother, who is writing an article for ELLE magazine on the subject of student prostitution. She is aided in this by a series of interviews with two specific, young prostitutes - Charlotte, played by Anaïs Demoustier and Alicja, played by Joanna Kulig - and the movie is a collection of scenes from a regular day or two of Anna coping with juggling work, a dinner party for her husband’s boss and her problematic relationship with her two sons, while at the same time interspersing the incidents that make up her days with both extracts from the interviews with the two girls in various locations and, more so, flashbacks to the actual encounters and lives the girls lead... all presented cross cut in a, slightly, non-linear fashion, although all the three types of footage being cross cut are sliced into segments which run linearly in their own chronology, if that makes sense. So you have five different timelines - Anna, Anna interviewing Charlotte, Charlotte’s life as a working girl, Alicja and Alicja’s life as a working girl - all crosscut with each other but still running in order in terms of their footage in relation to themselves.

It must have been an absolute nightmare to edit but... at no time are you ever really confused in the ‘narrative structure’ (and I use that term very loosely) of the piece and it all makes sense and fits together beautifully well. Which is amazing considering that the way in which various shots are taken are also quite different. For instance, a well staged shot following a smooth and fluid pan will be pitched straight against a more naturalistic, hand held style of camera work within the same segment. Furthermore... some of those long, smooth camera shots will get to a point in a scene, to reach a particularly beautiful composition, and then suddenly there will then be camera movement on a small reaction to something a character has done, like Anna taking a pace or two backward within a master shot and the camera will just be rearranged slightly to bring her back into the centre of the frame. Which is marvellous and, I would have thought, incredibly difficult to make work with all the different styles of shot being sewn together in the editing to make something so completely understandable... but it does it so well.

Scenes are quite confidently mixed and matched: flashbacks to Binoche and her subjects in the past while simultaneously seeing the story line of each of the girls as it progresses on a parallel to Binoche and independent of her, creating an ambience of mood which, again despite the shuffling around, doesn’t lose the emotional veracity of the piece or dilute its rendition due to the bouncing back and forth between shot content. The director magnificently coaxes the audience into accepting the overall flow of the piece, independent to the format of the content, without imposing any judgement on, or desire for, a more linear narrative flow.

Another thing the director seems to be doing quite often in this, and it’s quite possibly not a conscious thing but just an accidental occurrence, is to contrast scenes comprising of long shots with others in extreme close up... it’s quite refreshing that the director is not afraid to get right in the face of her actresses and actors in this film. Again, despite the two very different levels of intimacy achieved by the distance of the camera to her subjects, she seems to make it all work pretty well.

In terms of content, I’m pleased to say that the writer and director of this presents the two prostitutes as intelligent and emotional beings. It doesn’t make any judgement on their chosen profession and this is a good thing. As the narrative goes on it becomes clear that Anna’s original, cynical stance on the pitfalls and rewards of the girl’s chosen routes becomes more accepting and she begins to see them as friends and feels something of a void in her own life in comparison... at least that’s the way I saw things and, like many films, it’s open and resilient enough to handle a certain amount of interpretation. The two girl’s lifestyles are seen as not without danger but certainly as something which entails more freedom and ownership than Anna’s current home situation... which is a good view to take. It also has some telling details of the truth of the working practicalities of the girl’s lives. For instance, having two phones - one for clients and one for personal calls. I used to know a sex worker... not a prostitute actually but, in most ways, she did a job that certainly qualifies as sex work... and she apparently used the same kind of arrangement with her phones... so that struck me as a nice truism.

While the film is showing both the pros and cons of being a pro, and not making any real judgements from the audience in terms of pitching the content of the girls at any rate (the trajectory of Juliet Binoche’s character is, as I mentioned earlier, a little different in emotional tone) it doesn’t shy away from showing the graphic sexual content one might associate with the chosen profession of Charlotte and Alicja... which can only be a good thing and is a gutsy move on part of the writer and director not to veer away from what might be, to some, fairly challenging imagery in certain sequences. I was a little bemused at one point because the film, fairly early on in the narrative, shows one of the girls receiving a golden shower... and that’s something I believe is deemed uncertifiable by the BBFC in UK releases of movies, be it at the cinema or on home viewing. However, it’s definitely in here and so I’m wondering how this release got away with it, frankly. Certainly not complaining, but wondering how on earth Artificial Eye were allowed to include that content in their release with no intervention by our horrible censors. A neat trick, no doubt.

And so we have a film where the boldness of the content is not let down by either the acting - everybody, including Binoche of course, is absolutely awesome - and nor does the mise en scene and the editing let it down either. In fact, it gets quite dazzling on both fronts.

At one point, for instance, there’s a brilliant sequence where the director upends our perceptions of what we are seeing by the way the tone of two scenes involving one character’s interactions are presented in the edit. We think one of the girls is with her regular boyfriend, because the relationship between the two is so respectful and loving... and later we find that he is just another paying customer. In contrast, we are immediately given a scene of her with her 'real' boyfriend, which is the less easy going of the two relationships by far. It soon becomes clear that he doesn't know how she earns her money... which strikes me as another truism for a certain portion of sex workers, I suspect.

Another great piece of cinematic revelation comes in the form of a transformation scene around a dining table near the end of the movie and the culmination of both the dinner party Anna has had to prepare for and the current fragility of her emotional state. Here, the slow pan round of the camera circling the table allows the director to progressively and surreptitiously replace the people at the table with the actors who played the various girl's clients. Also, as we refamiliarise ourselves with the faces of the actors once they have transformed back to the real guests, it becomes clear that one of the guests is, indeed, one of the girl’s real life clients. Juliette Binoche, in her mind, is joining in with the music provided by one of the “clients” nakedly strumming a guitar and singing, until a cut takes us back into a view of Binoche as she really is... looking ghastly deadpan and without any of the joy of what has been going in her head showing externally. It’s a brilliant scene and a striking piece of performance from Binoche... but, of course, I’ve come to expect nothing less from this remarkable actress. The scene makes an obvious metaphor, perhaps, by using the art of the reveal to bring home the basic truths to an audience about the commonality of both the clientele and the girls they go to see, by holding up a mirror and showing us that neither is out of the ordinary and it could be any one of us or our close circle of friends in a similar situation. Again, though, it’s done without any form of judgmental tone from behind the camera... here the conclusions of the revelation are judged only by Anna herself and her reaction to her lapsed state of reality at this point. Which is just as it should be.

Elles is, I have to say, one of my better blind buys. If you can’t tell by the above coverage, I really enjoyed this one and am looking forward to revisiting it again at some point in the future, not to mention seeking out other movies directed by Malgorzata Szumowska somewhere down the line. A truly remarkable experience in modern cinema and something no cinephile should miss out on. I fully recommend this one to anyone into the beauty of the art... don’t let this one get away from you.

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