I went to this for Juliette Binoche, who is my choice for the finest international film actress of her generation. She does not disappoint. But ELLES, even though it traverses familiar thematic territory, is worth seeing in its own right.

Binoche plays a journalist who is interviewing female university students who make ends meet working as prostitutes. The usual parallels are drawn between prostitution and intimate relationships of all sorts, from boyfriends and girlfriends to marriage, all of which involve some sort of exchange and spoken or unspoken contractual expectation. And of course, to capitalist society as a whole, ground well trod in the French-speaking cinema at least since Godard.

Beyond that, the film critiques the role played in erotic attraction and fulfillment by power, wealth and anonymity. The prostitutes tell themselves, not without justification, that some of the power is their hands – the price, the time spent, what is or is not permitted – and also that what they are doing gives them freedom and autonomy in other spheres. Yet of course there are always clients who don’t respect the limits, and the job becomes a trap that infects rather than liberates them in their other relationships, which nearly by definition must include some level of deception or non-communication.

All of which is sensitively done, and convincing in terms of the milieu, which makes sense given that the director, Malgorzata Szumowska, is the daughter of a prominent journalist.

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