Blair McClendon, spending the semester abroad in Paris, reports on France’s new releases.

Elles (Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska)

After enjoying its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, the film opens tomorrow, April 27, at the Angelika Film Center and Clearview Chelsea in New York.

Elles

The issue film is a trap. It is rarely done well and often it has little to do with the talent of those behind the film and more to do with the project’s conception. Its origins can be rather divergent, ranging from an earnest conviction to treat a subject to the desire to profit off of the day’s scandal. Frequently, the result feels inorganic at best or patently false at worst. Malgorzata Szumowska’s latest film tends toward the former. Elles, a French film about the sex trade and obliquely student poverty, is the strange work that is simultaneously a success and an utter failure. The cast, led by Juliette Binoche, is fantastic. In fact, a great deal of the film’s achievements are owed to the strength of the acting. Some plaudits must, however, be reserved for Szumowska, who serves as both the director and co-writer. The last act alone is a masterpiece. A dinner, which has been in the works since the beginning of the film, turns into a Buñuelian exhibition of Johns that Binoche’s character could not possibly know, but whose apparitions haunt her nonetheless. Her abrupt departure, return and attempt to do for her husband what the young girls have done for their clients ends in an awful rejection. Szumowska’s willingness to mix a fluid tracking camera with static and alternate the brightness of the party with the deep blues and blacks of Binoche’s are beautiful examples of manipulative effects the medium can have on the spectator.

Indeed, the entire film progresses from a tired rehashing of visual and thematic platitudes towards genuine artistic invention. Unfortunately, some of the weight one is supposed to feel in the end has already been alleviated by earlier indulgences in well-trafficked clichés. Perhaps the most egregious of which is yet another shot of a woman’s hand pressed against the inside of a shower as she breathes heavily and sorrowfully to let us know that, yes, she is disquieted by what she has seen and heard. Using such obvious and melodramatic shorthand is something that must be earned within the context of the film, and Elles completely failed to do so. On a thematic level, it is rather tiresome to hear once again how a member of the upper middle class has descended into the streets, seen the sights and returned with an understanding that life is not so rosy as one might have thought. The mere fact that Szumowska has made Binoche’s character a journalist only highlights the sense that all these lives can ever be is the subject of research and herein lies the problem in the issue film. I am not proposing that there are certain subjects that one does not have the right to treat, but if the desperation of destitution must be shown let us avoid making the type of film that shakes us but eventually lets us off of the hook.

Elles shocks us in the way a well-written human interest piece shocks us. Perhaps we ought to give the journalist an award, perhaps we ought to launch an investigation of some sort – or perhaps we ought to go grab a bite to eat before turning in for the night. As a director, Szumowska fully demonstrates her capacity to create cinematically brilliant sequences, but if the film is approached as a whole she does not demonstrate that she deserves to be categorized amongst the best directors of her day. There are numerous debates over the worth of a canon, and perhaps hierarchies within the group of masters are futile, but ultimately Elles only shows the director’s potential for reaching that group. We reward those artists who not only have great technical skill, but who demonstrate some unique sensibility and some willingness to dispense with the hackneyed. We remember those who start the revolution or are its culmination. While the last act alone is worth the price of admission, the revolution is not a dinner party.