Joshua Reviews Malgoska Szumowska’s Elles [Blu-ray Review]

The NC-17 rating is a kiss of death for most films. Relegating your respective picture to nothing more than pure art-house theaters, most studios will routinely avoid films with the seal, and if they nab up a film with the rating, it likely won’t make it to theaters without a good slicing, dicing and editing.

However, they aren’t without their homes. The latest film to get a good shove via a studio into theaters and on home video is the new film from director Malgoska Szumowska entitled Elles.

Originally released in theaters with the NC-17 rating, the film has recently hit home video, and while it does definitely earn the rating, it’s also far more interesting than the stigma-giving label may have one believe. Starring Juliette Binoche, the film is a beautiful and well crafted look at sex and aging, and while it may in fact be a poorly paced and ham-fisted meditation on those ideals, it’s one hell of an enticing watch.

On a story level, Elles is supremely simplistic. Binoche stars as a well-off writer who is writing a story on two different young prostitutes. One, a sweet and almost innocent youngster who may or may not be falling for one of her clients and the other, a seductive sex pot with a penchant for doing just about anything and everything with her clients, Elles makes up for its lack of energy with a beauty and elegance unlike many films that it calls its peers. Following in a similar aesthetic to its NC-17 brethren Shame, the film is slowly paced and melodic, and while its plot doesn’t offer much in the way of intrigue, like the Steve McQueen film it’s one hell of a visual stunner.

While Binoche’s performance is solid, Szumowska, when behind the camera and not the pen, is this film’s brightest star. With gorgeous cinematography that changes with both the film’s mood and its narrative focus, Elles doesn’t offer much in the way of visual flourishes, but it does give the viewer an extremely sensual and lusty world to thrive in. There are a few flights of visual fancy, primarily the film’s three central sex scenes, which are both visually stirring as well as being indicative of the characters that are involved. Charlotte, Binoche’s character’s brunette interest, has a scene that is tender. Almost innocence and extremely playful. Alicja, the blonde bombshell? Her scene is straightforward. Blocked off. Matter of fact and movement-free. Szumowska’s screenplay isn’t top tier (a piece she co-wrote with Tine Byrckel), but her direction is both fantastic as an overall piece, and also inherently thought provoking with regards to its relation to the film’s narrative and themes.

Binoche is really quite great here. The film is inherently about the relationship between aging and sexuality, particularly pertaining to the female experience, and her character is an embodiment of that. She finds, through these women, an outlet for her own frustrations in life. Her two muses are far more interesting characters however, playing two opposite sides of the spectrum. Joanna Kulig plays Alicja, and is every bit the seductress as the role calls for. She’s an absolute knockout, both gorgeous and mysterious, and has a sense of melancholy about herself and her lot in life that is really affecting. Anais Demoustier plays Charlotte, and really adds an equal amount of depth to her character, a young woman fine with what her job entails, but also striving for something far greater. These are two fantastic performances that in a greater film, would have their praises ung far more.

Overall, the film’s pacing and lackluster overall story arch does in what is, at its very core, a rather moving look at female sexuality and aging. It’s a gorgeously melancholy film featuring top notch cinematography and a pair of performances that prove it to be a far greater film than its structure would make it seem. Now on a great Blu-ray from Kino, Elles is not a film that everyone will jive with, but for those who see its merits, of which there are many, this will be a hard one to shake.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.