From all appearances, life in Anne's beautiful upper middle class Parisian condo seems to be going just fine. However, as is usually the case, below the surface are a variety of problems. Her youngest son seems to be addicted to video games, her eldest son is in and out at all hours and is now skipping school, and the intimacy with her husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is beginning to fade. These are all problems that could be addressed quite easily, but Anne and Patrick are busy with their careers and both have demurred from disciplining their children or discussing their relationship. Patrick's job conveniently keeps him out of most of the movie, but Anne's investigation takes her dangerously to...a park bench and a swanky hotel suite.
Szumowska's conservatism in regards to sex comes through in an extended sequence in which we see Alicja's sex acts with one of her clients start innocently enough with her getting bent over a couch and fucked from behind, leading to some mutual masturbation, and followed by getting her tits pissed on. Yes, it's graphically depicted with a judgmental, slightly grossed-out eye, but it's not any more shocking than the average contents of a weekly Savage Love column. As for Charlotte, her appointments are much more routine and less explicitly depicted, and she seems to be enjoying what is a much more idyllic-than-usual gig as a woman of the night, balancing her home life and her studies.
Szumowska isn't quite sure what she wants to say about prostitution or Anne's own sexuality. While Charlotte and Alicja both spend most of the movie navigating their jobs without consequence, as if to drive home the point that prostitution can be dangerous, one of them will get horribly violated. It seems Szumowska would rather side on the conventional notion that paying for sex is distasteful. Meanwhile, Anne leaves the film without considering any of the issues raised in her own life about pornography or sexuality. "Elles" tries to end on an ambiguous note that instead of leaving the audience thinking about what has transpired, it runs away from any issue it brings up.
"Elles" is ultimately an exploration of some very sound topics around women and sexuality, that feels about 10 to 15 years old. At its worst it's a Lifetime movie with explicit nudity. And while the performances are strong -- Kulig has the potential to be breakout star boasting a strong screen presence and an undeniable beauty -- they flounder in a movie that fails to reward them with character development or a story that goes beyond the obvious. Trying to rely on "sordid" sexuality to deliver the drama instead of any truly compelling narrative, "Elles" is ultimately is a flaccid effort. [D+]
This is a reprint of our review from TIFF.