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REVIEW: Elles
REVIEW: Elles

Journalistic investigation is regularly a vehicle for suspense and dramatic tension in film. In recent years think Frost/Nixon, State of Play, and the British television series, The Hour.

In Polish writer-director Malgoska Szumowska's French language Elles, though, it's used as a thin pretext for a film that is predominantly an erotic drama.

Anne (Juliette Binoche), a comfortably situated middle-aged Parisienne, is investigating the lives of student prostitutes - a topical, contentious subject in a film that is anything but balanced or remotely journalistic.

Unlike some of the more offbeat recent films examining prostitution as a career choice - like Australian director Julia Leigh's coolly fascinating Sleeping Beauty or Steven Soderbergh's experimental drama The Girlfriend Experience - Szumowska instead delivers a rose-tinted glimpse into the world's oldest female profession.

Anne, who writes for a glossy women's magazine, interviews a small pool of two subjects for her story, a young local student named Lola (Anais Demoustier) and a Polish student recently arrived in Paris, Alicja (Joanna Kulig).

It is quickly revealed that both unabashedly view prostitution as an easy ticket to financial freedom and an activity far less demeaning than existing as economic underdogs in contemporary Paris - a concept Anne absorbs initially with thinly veiled judgment.

Lola, whose name is later revealed to be Charlotte, and Alicja's clients are mostly attractive older men. There are only hints, revealed in cursory flashbacks, that their exchanges are ever anything less than straightforward. Most even seem erotic and mutually pleasurable. At one stage Szumowska, who wrote the script with Tine Byrckel, has the audience convinced one of Lola's intimate bedroom trysts is with the oblivious boyfriend she alludes to in interviews, rather than the paying client he is, such is the scene's happily loving exchange.

In another scene, Alicja has a bizarre (but quite beautiful) sing-along with a sweet old guitar-strumming client.

Conversely, it's Binoche's Anne, with her privileged life with a husband and two sons whose home life is depicted as one of compromise and skewed sexual politics - as she prepares dinner for her husband's boring colleagues, looks after children and attends to the house as well as her career. It's a rather fatuous juxtaposition that few are likely to buy, even if they are diverted by the film's nicely choreographed and artistically filmed titillations - like Binoche getting steamy with one of her young subjects before suggestively shucking scallops in her kitchen.

Disappointingly, Szumowska's defiant glamorisation of the trade bypasses any meaningful examination of the choices set before young women determined to get ahead these days.

It's hard to know what she's saying. That marriage is the same as prostitution but with less variety?

Men certainly come off badly, Anne's husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) particularly. In one curious dinner scene she hallucinates her husband's colleagues are all the johns she has heard so much about.

By the end it's clear that Szumowska's muddled sexual politics are secondary to the film's primary concern - simple middle-aged erotica.

Which is fine, if that's what you're after. Binoche is always interesting and both Kulig and Demoustier give genuinely fresh, interesting performances.

The film just lacks depth or anything new to say about an always-relevant subject.