Monday, 20 February 2012
'Elles' Berlinale (Panorama) review:
With a frank and vanity-free central performance from Juliette Binoche, French drama 'Elles' was one of the festival's early highlights playing in the interesting and diverse Panorama strand. In it a veteran journalist spends a day at home performing thankless chores and preparing dinner for her husband's work colleagues. Whilst doing this cooking and cleaning she is also trying to write a glossy magazine article on French students who support their studies by working as prostitutes. Over the course of the film she thinks back on interviews with two young women and, through backflashes, we are told their stories.
Over the day the journalist goes from feeling smug and superior to showing some signs of kinship with the girls - eventually coming to the realisation that her life may be no better behind a veneer of middle-class respectability. In fact in some respects she seems to be having less fun: sexually repressed and in a loveless marriage, disrespected by her teenage son and pushed to meet tight writing deadlines. Yet the film is also careful not to glamorise prostitution, instead depicting it with rare nuance. Sometimes the girls encounter violence or humiliation, but often they are shown to enjoy a job with flexible working hours and for which they are handsomely paid.
Polish director Malgoska Szumowska shoots everything in a claustrophobic, handheld style which wrings the maximum from Binoche's raw, unguarded performance. I'm loathe to call an actor "brave" simply for appearing naked or allowing themselves to be photographed in unflattering light, but there isn't really another way of describing this performance. The slightly pretentious acting buzzword "honesty" also seems entirely appropriate here.