A journalist investigates teen sex workers, and sees in their world things that are missing from her own.
Exploring the moral and psychological damage caused by teenage prostitution is akin to lifting up a rock and exposing pretty much all seven of the deadly sins squirming in an ugly knot.
In "Elles," Juliette Binoche plays a writer for a glossy women's magazine who explores this fraught emotional terrain, interviewing two lovely student-age sex workers about the compulsions, the addictions, the self-justifications and the simple, pure thrill of it. Her fascination for the topic grows, her research goes deeper, until she sees unnerving parallels between her own affluent, cold marriage and her subjects' lucrative, loveless profession.
This Paris-based film from Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska is a fairly unengaging journalism procedural shellacked with a veneer of elliptical, complicated symbolism.
Binoche's interview sessions with angular brunette Anaïs Demoustier and curvaceous blonde Joanna Kulig cover some lurid scenarios that bleed into the writer's imagination. We see numerous impressionistic scenes of the prostitutes at work, but we're never certain whether these passages represent reality or Binoche's fantasy.
In her deluxe kitchen Binoche struggles to close the balky door to her refrigerator, burns her hand on an overheated soup pot and fondles velvety raw oyster guts, a renowned source of food poisoning. Calling these sequences sexual imagery does a disservice to sledgehammers.
Every elegant camera angle in "Elles" suggests something painstakingly belabored -- Binoche's museum-minimalist apartment is decorated in 50 shades of gray -- but it's less accomplished in filling in details about the characters. To some degree, all the men and women are interchangeable; the film plays obsessively with points of view and blurred identities. Binoche's character disapproves of her sources' decadent tendencies, but feels drawn to them with an intimacy missing from her emotionally disconnected husband and sons.
The prostitution episodes are the only scenes of tenderness. Barring a deplorable episode with a wine bottle and one man's borderline-violent tantrum when a hooker confiscates his iPhone, the girls' clients are portrayed as regular guys. "They're not losers," Demoustier's coltish college student explains. Finally Binoche imagines that the johns are guests at her dinner party. We never learn if the writer manages to turn her interviews into a meaningful, coherent story. On the basis of the muddled film, I'd guess not.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186