"Elles" is a French film made by a relatively young Polish-born filmmaker (Malgoska Szumowska) whom I've never heard of until now. I'm fairly certain she will be better known going forward. "Elles" does have weaknesses, but it also has impressive strengths. It establishes a place for Szumowska on the world-cinema stage. She is a filmmaker to watch.
"Elles" is beautifully filmed. Szumowska is a master of cinematography and mise-en-scene. In many instances, just the way a shot was composed took my breath away. Equally gorgeous was the editing, with cross-cutting that was consistently innovative and almost always perfect.
The film is masterfully acted, with the incomparable Juliette Binoche leading a superb supporting cast. Szumowska clearly knows how to direct actors and is able to handle middle-aged and young actors equally well, a rare skill. Every character felt authentic to me, from the teenagers to the fortysomethings. One of the hallmarks of a true artist, I believe, is the ability to empathize with characters of all ages -- seeing the world from their different perspectives.
The story line is as follows: A well-educated, middle-aged wife and mother (Binoche) is a Parisian journalist researching an article on young female prostitutes. We go along with her as she conducts several interviews with the young women. We also go along with the prostitutes on some appointments, so we get to know them first-hand as well. The film is almost as much about the young prostitutes as it is about the journalist, but it digs more deeply into the character of the journalist.
Szumowska's major interest is how the experience impacts Binoche's character. This journalist who has up until now led something like the perfect bourgeois life, finds herself distracted and irascible at home. I loved watching Binoche bring this vague ennui to life. She's not specifically unhappy about anything, but getting to know the prostitutes has vaguely unsettled her.
I love that the film doesn't get too specific about this. But this strength is paradoxically also a weakness. It gives the film a sketchy quality that can at times feel irritating, as if the film lacks a story arc. The film is also at times repetitious.
But overall, "Elles" is one of the most interesting pieces of work of the cinema season. In a year that has so far been incredibly disappointing with regard to cinema, "Elles" stands out as a brave and authentic work of art. A work of true cinema.