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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Interviews in the Skin Trade
by Donald Levit

Muscled out of business by moralists and developers, Billy’s Topless permitted no hanky-panky and was the model for Ray Ruby’s Paradise Lounge in Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. No matter: college girls who moonlighted as strippers for their obscene university expenses now advertise fuller services in newspapers and online. Such is the point of departure for Polish filmmaker/co-writer Malgoska Szumowska’s Berlin, Toronto and Tribeca festivals Elles.

Only a starting point, however, for, nonjudgmental about the cultural phenomenon that sets its wheels in motion, the story is about Anne (Juliette Binoche), the Elle magazine journalist researching a 12,000-character piece. Though she replies to a question from interviewee Alicja (Joanna Kulig) that she herself is impartial and “this is not about me,” it is largely about her.

Neither that Polish international student nor “Lola” (Anaïs Demoustier) -- real name, Charlotte -- changes much, except to realize that sex work brings in excellent cash for little time and is surprisingly the opposite of a downer. A closing en famille breakfast may suggest that Anne does not alter, either, that all will be family-business-as-usual, but the ninety minutes hints that she is not the same and in future will do more than merely mouth radical chic anti-sexism.

Although males of all ages come off as tyrants or pathetic, and personal freedom is the female’s courageous choice, director and star do not see the work as feminist statement. Whether so or not, the sexually explicit result detracts from itself with insistent angled facial close-ups against white overexposed backgrounds and truncated human figures. More damaging, it is as unsubtle as, not a truck but a tract: what it says about society, hypocrisy and gender rôles is not wide of the mark but is semi-dramatized so blatantly as to be allegorical. One concurs with the message but finds the messenger unacceptable. Only once does irony -- to Gloria in D Major on Classic Radio -- soften the sledgehammer.

The actress’ expressive smile and eyes give life to her professional and then personal appraisal of the two young women contacted through their ads. To husband and sons, she is housewife first and foremost, whose staying up all night to write does not excuse her. The haute-bourgeois family lacks for nothing, as she reminds class-cutting marijuana-giggling teen Florent (François Civil), and her shoes, she answers Alijca, are très cheres. Dressed in fashionable black for interviews, she massages her hospitalized father’s (Jean-Marie Binoche, Juliette’s father) feet and schlubs around the house alone in faded grey to clean up after the menfolk, do laundry and exercises, and prepare a meal for her husband’s boss and associates.

The marriage is lackluster, Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) too busy on cellphone business to deal with the boys, too stressed for emotional or physical loving, too absorbed with his world to notice hers. Florent is at that rebellious age, and Stéphane (Pablo Beugnet) will grow up and graduate from PlayStation war games to hardcore screen pornography.

Backgrounded by unfocused greenery, the park interviews with the French girl are documentary style, while those with the Polish one take place in her apartment -- where, coaxed into drinks, Anne grows loose, giggly and tempted. Curious about both of them, professing not to be shocked -- and middle-aged titillated -- she notes down the ins and outs, the tricks of the trade, and the amused young women’s accounts become enacted sequences, even to Lola’s relations with boyfriend Thomas (Arthur Moncia).

The implication is that the prim hypocrites who barter their essential selves for status and things, are the true prostitutes. That does not deny that Alicja and Lola get hooked on the material comforts that money buys. But, it is emphasized, neither girl feels debased, for they enjoy the work, which beats a previous long-hours short-pay job in a fast-food place. In their screen-visualized encounters, it is their mostly married clients who are frustrated, impotent or in need of ego-stroking.

The two playful students school the serious mature housewife-houseslave. The movie is not about Sisterhood so much as making a free choice, as a woman or, presumably, a man. Contradictorily, the implication throughout is that that freedom of choice revolves around having money. There is neither free lunch nor free love.

(Released by Kino Lorber Films and rated "NC-17" by MPAA.)

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