Ah, the French, and their obsession with prostitution as both a literal and figurative act. Malgoska Szumowska's Elles, a Marks & Spencer remake of Jeanne Dielman..., offers us Juliette Binoche as an Elle journalist interviewing a pair of students who've come to sell their bodies for cash. There's Charlotte-known-as-Lola (rent-a-waif Anaïs Demoustier), who's the very apple of her parents' (and boyfriend's) eye when she's not out servicing the bored husbands and lonely office workers of Paris. And there's Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a Polish student who does what she does in exchange for a leg up on the property ladder; an early recollection of hers involves a middle-aged client who lavishes a golden shower upon her before serenading her on the guitar with a rendition of "Autumn Leaves". (Whoever said romance was dead?)
The film has two modes. In its conversational mode, sometimes the girls are forthcoming in response to the journalist's questions, and sometimes they clam up. Its other mode is altogether more explicit, demonstrating just what all this talk is actually about. Szumowska cultivates a certain authenticity in her depiction of the freelance life: the sex is frank in that very French way (Kulig's toplessness may yet set off the same conniptions in one section of the audience as Michael Fassbender's nudity in Shame apparently did for everyone else), but we're also allowed to note the journalist's horror upon learning her potentially groundbreaking article is to be cut from 12,000 characters to a lowly 8,000. For once, I felt her pain.
Indeed, Elles proves less concerned with prostitution's effect on the girls than it is with the prostitutes' effect on Binoche, presented (not for the first time on screen) as a victim of a stifling haute-bourgeoise respectability, forever adjusting throw cushions, railing against her ingrate teenage son and wrestling with a fridge door that just won't close properly. You can tell some form of transference is afoot when Lola, listing some of her clients' choicer dirty talk, floats the immortal inquiry "Does this make you wet?", and the journalist responds as though she were the one being asked. Szumowska's thesis is that, schooled from an early age to accept porn on our laptops and high heels and dildoes in our closets, we are all prostitutes now, and it's just a matter of haggling over the price. Yet her film is constructed in the manner of a long-winded, repetitive, never intentionally unamusing joke, and you can see the punchline coming from a distance, especially if you've ever made the acquaintance of Belle de Jour or Two or Three Things I Know About Her.
In the meantime, we get a lot of underlining (whole minutes of Binoche charging from the hob to the tumble dryer and back), weird, possibly producer-added scenes (Binoche and Kulig bonding over white wine and spaghetti, as though in an episode of Sex & The City), and scenes that send out decidedly mixed messages: at one point, the journalist is witnessed massaging her aged father's feet, and we wonder whether the idea is that she should be charging for such intimacy, or whether it's that her interviewees shouldn't be charging for providing a similar relief - that they (we?) should touch people out of the goodness of their (our?) own hearts. Of course, then there's that rumpo - only some of which, like Demoustier's encounter with a wine bottle-touting Rutger Hauer-alike, could be said to be completely uncommercial - which generally suggests a film keen to wag its finger even while it's flashing its knickers. We play out with the second movement of Beethoven's seventh symphony, now canonised (after Irreversible and Tiresia) as the official theme tune of the Pompous French Cinematic Statement on Sexuality.
Elles opens in selected cinemas from Friday.