It doesn’t take much of an excuse to build a movie around Juliette Binoche, and “Elles” is barely an excuse of a movie. Rated NC-17 (more a reflection of the MPAA’s prudishness than a promise that you’ll see anything very exciting), the film casts Binoche as a bourgeois Parisian named Anne. The mother of an adoring elementary schoolboy and his sardonic teenage brother, she manages their chic, black-gray-white apartment with the abstracted aid of husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). Their marital bed, let us say, is lukewarm.
Perhaps that’s why Anne, a magazine writer, builds her next story around sex. Through online ads, she tracks down two college students, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), who are helping pay for tuition and rent by selling sexual services. No middleman, no pimp. Via phone and the World Wide Web, they handle their own appointments with johns. If they’re not high-end escorts, at least they’re not walking the streets. (The movie shows virtually zero interest in the schoolwork that’s supposedly the raison d’etre for their hooking.)
This easy-money, no-strings view of prostitution is one of the elements that mark “Elles” as a kind of con game. It’s perfectly watchable, elegantly art-directed, but without the real charge of something either unabashedly dirty or psychologically insightful. Or believable. No real attempt is made to delve into the minds of its young eros-entrepreneurs. (For a supposedly accomplished journalist, Anne doesn’t ask a single interesting question.) Instead, we follow Anne around her apartment, preparing for her dinner party but increasingly heated up as she mentally replays her interviews with the two women.
“Elles” shuffles three narrative tracks: Anne’s “Mrs. Dalloway”-like prep for her party, scenes of Charlotte and Alicja getting it on with their tricks (mostly middle-aged and married men), and Anne’s giggly, semi-Sapphic interview and bonding sessions with these girls young enough to be her daughters. Pillow fight, anyone?
The movie isn’t embarrassing. It’s too polite for that. I don’t know what attracted Binoche to the barely-there script. Fans of her acting, though, will be rewarded. Before she armors herself in a sensational gown for that dinner party, she spends much of the movie slouching around sans makeup, wearing pajamas and robes. Pushing 50, she has a blue-white, marble-like beauty that would be engrossing in and of itself, even if so many subtle emotions weren’t constantly flickering across her face. She’s way too good for this material. Ah, well, that’s the daily reality for many working actors.
A note on the sexual content. The movie includes some nudity (mostly the women’s) and some grinding around, but nothing really hard core. There’s an upsetting, but obliquely shot, moment for Charlotte when a john tries to use a champagne bottle as a sex toy. And Alicja submits to a “golden shower” — a scene that’s shocking mainly because it makes you worry that her casually chic apartment might get devalued due to the stains.
“Elles.” Starring Juliette Binoche, Joanna Kulig, Anaïs Demoustier. Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska. In French and Polish with subtitles. Rated NC-17. 96 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.