Depictions of prostitutes in the movies tend to fall into one of two categories. In category one, desperation motivates a character to ply their trade in a risky world with horrendous results. Think of Jennifer Connolly getting ravaged to a hellish soundtrack in Requiem for a Dream. Or Elisabeth Shue, resorting to one last trick in Leaving Las Vegas and getting gang-raped in the process. Prostitution is present in these films to facilitate a violation to communicate the message, “this is what hopelessness looks like”.
Category two is at the other end of the spectrum. Prostitution is presented as a world that independent characters move in without traumatic consequences. It’s a form of sexual adventure for bored housewives, as in Buñuel’s Belle De Jour, or a holding pen for sassy beauties ready to be rescued by Richard Gere types, as in Pretty Woman, fourth most successful romcom of all time. Prostitution in category two films represents the ashes from which a female phoenix will attempt to rise.
In both these categories, prostitution is just a handy narrative device. It’s very rare that the oldest profession is presented as a film’s whole subject. Let us then welcome Polish director, Malgorzata Szumowksa’s Elles with a great deal of gratitude. Due for release in the UK on April 20, it rewards the subject with the complexity it deserves.
Elles stars Juliette Binoche as Anne, a seemingly settled magazine journalist with a silver fox husband and two kids. When the narrative begins, she is researching a feature about university students funding studies through prostitution. The project incites a sexual awakening, sending tremors to the core of her middle-class life. Set in Paris, the film takes the obvious but important step of legitimising sexual need – a driving force consistently overlooked in films that focus on power abuse or emotional journeys. Anne’s sexual experiences are shot in a touchingly honest light. She sneaks in a grimy afternoon masturbation session amid the frustration of planning a meal for her husband’s slick bourgeois colleagues.
As point of view swings between Anne and the unfolding stories of two student prostitutes, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), Szumowska makes sure to give us a long look at the sort of men that make up the girls’ client base. Misogynistic bad apples are present but so are vulnerable souls, often married and deeply ashamed. In one scene, what starts as a sexy office call to an executive in his sixties turns, post-vagina reveal, to passionate tears. We will never know why that anatomical part provoked that emotion. It could be association with a daughter, old memories of a wife or too much Sauvignon at lunch. Szumowska only shows us a complex human response from that oft-vilified character, the man who pays for sex.
The girls themselves are presented in a light that initially veers uncomfortably close to the ‘Happy Hooker’ mould. Charlotte – who calls herself ‘Lola’ – is shy but flirty and quick to infectiously laugh her punters’ cares away. Alicja is more of a sultry sex bomb and appears to take primal enjoyment from the various scenarios visited upon her. Both girls come to experience personal backlashes but the strength of early characterisations means their misfortunes do not define their identities. Wonderfully, Szumowska has given us working girls that are more than the sum of their parts.
The parts in question are both beautiful and frequently exposed. It would have been progressive to show less conventionally appealing prostitutes, but if casting these belles will get people into the movie theatre to consider the brilliant implication at the core of Elles, we can cut Szumowska some slack.
The brilliant implication comes just in time, as the character studies begin to feel meandering. An unexpected and haunting edit during a meal suggests that prostitution is not a sordid part of the world that the civilised can disown and dismiss, it is a social symptom that implicates us all because we are all sexual beings. Prostitution may feel distant to those of us lucky enough not to need the industry but, according to The English Collective of Prostitutes, the sale of sex is increasing in exactly the demographic presented in Elles, a demographic we presume to be safe from all that, students. The coalition’s decision last year to treble tuition fees is only going to exacerbate this trend so now is a deeply relevant time for us to shake off one-dimensional ideas about what the industry means. Elles will encourage this mental exercise. Go see it.
Elles is out on general release from 20 April 2012