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Elles

Year: 2011
Production Co: Slot Machine
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
Writer: Tine Byrckel/Malgorzata Szumowska
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Joanna Kulig, Anaïs Demoustier

I've done this twice in the last couple of weeks. I queued this movie up on a streaming service thinking I was watching Paul Verhoeven's 2016 rape revenge drama Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert (I also mistakenly watched a 1990 Bill Pullman thriller called Brain Dead thinking I was watching Peter Jackson's post- Bad Taste splatterfest).

No, turns out it's the Frenchest of French movies about the Frenchest of French subjects with the absolute Frenchest sense of style you've ever seen.

I'm sure I've made jokes before about directors working so hard to achieve a French film aesthetic the only thing missing is striped tops and berets and characters carrying paper bags with a baguette sticking out of the top, but it's never been more the case than here.

Maybe it's because the director is herself a foreigner and everything she knows about life in Paris is from French romantic comedies. Even that wouldn't be a very big deal itself, but the story is very slight and it's told using a very slipshod approach to chronology, all of which only make the artifice of it all the more obvious.

The Frenchest of French actors, Juliette Binoche, is Anne, a columnist at a woman's fashion magazine doing a story on a series of young women studying at the local university and paying for it all by being prostitutes.

While doing so she's trying to keep her home and family under control including a demanding job, a slacker son who seems to be cutting class and smoking dope, and a busy husband who barely has time for anything apart from having her make an opulent dinner party to impress his boss.

Anne follows and talks to two such women, a Polish immigrant who's fallen on hard times named Alicja (Joanna Kulig), and a local girl called Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier). And here's where the story doesn't know where to go.

Or rather, it tells three stories that are only related because the characters in them cross paths. The story apparently takes place across a single day, which nothing in the film itself gives you any idea is the case – I had to read it in the plot description on Wikipedia.

Charlotte has a fairly mundane life with her own family and boyfriend, trying to keep what she does for money a secret but unprepared when the men she sees open up to her about their problems, marriages, families and work, too nice a person not to get a bit too emotionally involved with it all and seeing her other relationships suffer.

Alicja lost her suitcase when she arrived in Paris and had nowhere to stay, so another student took her in and introduced her to the world's oldest profession. She's far less happy to discuss her hidden life with Anne, but proceeds to get the older woman drunk so both their inhibitions are lowered and then pokes fun at Anne's comparatively conservative outlook.

And as she talks to them, Anne herself starts to wonder how sex fits into her life with a demanding work and family, questioning everything and ending up in a – slightly ridiculous – sequence at the dinner party where her husband's workmates all morph into the women she's been talking to and the men they've seen during a slow pan around the table.

It seems obvious it's a way of visualising how the stories of these womens' lives (as well as the men who pay them for their time and bodies) have leached into Anne's emotional landscape, but it's a pretty ham-fisted way of conveying it.

Beyond that, I've spent all of three days in France in my life – and that was from the confines of a tourist coach and a couple of hotels, but even I know life in France in the real world isn't as French as this.

I rolled my eyes at how desperately French it was trying to be (from the cigarettes in every scene to the way it thinks a movie about beautiful young free spirited women with older male lovers has never been done before and is enough alone to hold your interest).

The action jumps back and forth between the three women, sometimes with two of them together and sometimes with them going about their days, but nothing gives you any clue about how the timelines of their stories are all connected, and it ends up just a series of vignettes that don't add up to much. The writer/director might have known what she wanted it to be but it doesn't end up being anything.

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