Before I signed on to produce The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell last fall, the closest experience I’d had to a film festival was an all-night Christian Bale marathon at the Aero.  Armed with snacks and a neck pillow, I sat through five Bale features in a row from 7PM to 5AM. It was awesome.

But not even my Bale-athon can compare to the exhilarating experiences I’ve had this year at Sundance and Tribeca.

I’m constantly overwhelmed with film screeners, books, and television shows to consider for The Treatment.  I’m getting better at dealing with the guilt associated with the fact that I will never be able to read or watch every single thing that comes across my desk.  In that regard, I love film festivals, because I get to see a LOT of films in concentration, and discover talent I wouldn’t have heard about otherwise.

I must say, sitting through four or five movies in a day can be rather draining.  By the end of the day you’re all nerves and emotions; your butt is imprinted in the theater seat, and your feet are buried underneath a sea of burrito wrappers and Coke cups.  And then, once it’s all said and done, you have to somehow communicate your experiences to others in a satisfying way, which is quite a daunting task, even for the most stoic and seasoned film critic (of which I am not – that’s Elvis’ job).

I saw ten films at Tribeca, but when I got back I immediately started writing about the “Elles” by Polish director Malgoska Szumowska.  It wasn’t one of my favorites at the festival, but perhaps it was the one I needed to process most.  The film stars Juliette Binoche as Anne, a journalist who’s writing a piece about student prositution.  Szumowska co-wrote the film after reading an article about the increasing popularity of this alarming social trend among French college females.  In other words, it’s a hot topic, and the film is full of explicit sex scenes that were at times very difficult to watch.

Ironically, the first thing I wrote about the movie was a cold and clinical review (which you can read below if you have nothing but time and like to read things that are boring).  I just didn’t know what to make of it, or what to make of my strong reaction to it.

Although many critics are exasperated by Szumowska’s portrayal of the female experience, Binoche’s performance alone is worth the ticket.  I hadn’t heard a word about it before Tribeca, but that’s one of the greatest parts about the festival: the joy in discovering a new filmmaker or appreciating a well-known talent.  Once the last burrito wrapper had been thrown away, and I was back on the plane to LA, I knew that for whatever reason, I had to share this part of my festival experience.  “Elles” is playing at the Nuart now through Thursday, May 10th.  View the trailer here.

Elles is distributed by Kino Lorber and now in limited release.  It is directed by Malgoska Szumowska and written by Malgoska Szumowska and Tine Byrckel. It stars Juliette Binoche, Anais Demoustier and Janna Kulig. Rated NC-17.

NOTES FROM TRIBECA: “ELLES” directed by Malgoska Szumowska
By Jenny Radelet

A husband and wife mill around the kitchen preparing breakfast. The husband, Patrick, is dressed in his suit and tie and the wife in her bathrobe. The children are late for school, and there is much to be done before Patrick’s boss comes over for dinner that evening. The wife, Anne, tries to close the refrigerator door, but various bottles of dressing and milk continually get in the way of it shutting fully. Finally, in a wave of frustration, Anne slams the door shut, only to have it swing wide open again. “What did the fridge do to you?” the husband asks.

Anne’s domestic frustration, which she comically takes out on the fridge, is central to ‘Elles,” which was co-written and directed by Polish filmmaker Malgoska Szumowska. The film stars Juliette Binoche as Anne, a journalist, wife, and mother of two boys. When we first meet Anne, it is just before the kitchen fiasco. She is sitting at the computer in her beautiful Parisian apartment, disheveled after working through the night on her latest piece for Elle magazine: an expose about female college students who are prostituting themselves in order to afford school and living expenses.

We spend the day with Anne as she prepares dinner, does laundry, tidies up the house, and wanders around aimlessly listening to classical music. Cut in between these domestic vignettes is the story of her two interview subjects, the wholesome, flirtatious Lola and the explosive, childlike Alecja (played by Joanna Kulig, who gives a standout performance.) Anne begins her work as a concerned, almost maternal outsider seeking understanding. Gradually, as she becomes more immersed in the lives of these girls, she begins to unravel, calling into question all the relationships with the men in her own life, and distancing herself from her domestic roles of wife and mother.

The idea for “Elles” spawned from an article about the increasing epidemic of female prostitution in French colleges. Szumowska presents it as a social trend with complicated roots. Lola is drawn to it out of fear of ending up like her lower-middle class parents. Alecja resorts to it after a frustrating meeting with a school counselor leaves her with nowhere else to turn. Although these young women have different motivations for prostituting themselves, they both seem to enjoy the attention they receive from men, and the lifestyle it enables them to afford.

Szumowska depicts human sexuality in many complicated forms. It is soft and sensual, grotesque and violent, bizarre, isolating and at times, tragic. The scenes are so explicit that the film merited an NC-17 rating when it was released in New York and Los Angeles this past weekend. Thankfully, Binoche’s performance adds humor and compassion that gives the film some balance and the viewer some relief.

We never get to read Anne’s piece once it’s finished, but one can gather it would be in line with Szumowska’s realm of thought: that prostitution is a woman’s choice, that sex for money can be enjoyed, and that men’s perception of women remains flawed. Whether or not you agree, “Elles” is worth seeing as a provocative exploration of the themes of guilt, consequence, pleasure, loneliness and the female experience.


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