Interviews produce new shades of grey

Juliette Binoche in a scene from the film, Elles.
Juliette Binoche in a scene from the film, Elles.

ELLES (R)     

Four stars.

Selected (96 minutes) Stars: Juliette Binoche. Director: Malgoska Szumowska.

Sex work fascinates many filmmakers, but the Polish director Malgoska Szumowska tackles the theme from a bold, individual point of view. Not pretending to cool detachment, she seems to puzzle out her feelings as she goes along; the same applies to her heroine Anne (Juliette Binoche), an ultra-bourgeois Parisian journalist completing an article on students in the sex trade.

The film's intricate structure takes a while to figure out. We follow Anne over the course of a single day spent mostly alone in the apartment she shares with her husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and their sons. In between bouts of work, she daydreams, smokes, and prepares for the evening, when Patrick's boss will be coming to dinner.

Clearly unsettled by her own thoughts, Anne becomes increasingly frantic, with a series of domestic mishaps - she leaves her keys in the fridge, struggles to open a wine bottle, burns her fingers on the stove - all bluntly hinting at her sexual frustration.

Meanwhile, flashbacks show her with two youthful interviewees, both outwardly cheerful and down-to-earth: Charlotte (Anais Demoustier), a ''healthy'' French girl from a lower-class family, and Alicja (Joanna Kulig) a tougher, more defensive Polish immigrant.

These interviews prompt further flashbacks that both illustrate and undercut what Charlotte and Alicja have to say about their lives.

There's a lot of explicit sex, but it's unclear how much of it is Anne's imagination.

More than willing to play against her own beauty, Binoche gives what amounts to a tour de force performance, even before her show-stopping masturbation scene. Her odd, spontaneous gestures derail any linear notion of character development: at home, Anne ''relaxes'' into a bag of nerves, while during the interviews she adopts a strained professional pose, stretching her mouth into a broad, thin-lipped smile.

Binoche's anxious manner carries over into Szumowska's own technique: she favours handheld long takes ending in abrupt cuts, so the film itself seems to ''breathe'' in a sharp, ragged way. In the flashbacks, intimate close-ups mingle with wider shots often framed through doorways or windows, as if to make the audience conscious of its own voyeurism.

Realising that she is closer to Charlotte and Alicja than she first thought, Anne is distressed and turned on at the same time, prompting a similar ambivalence in the viewer.

Sex is not a subject that lends itself to easy moralising, partly because it's so interwoven with fantasy. The film suggests how different fantasies, sexual and otherwise, meld and clash, without arriving at a single polemical ''truth''.

But, if nothing is resolved, Anne finally gets what she wants after a fashion - unless the sly ending is just another dream.

This story Interviews produce new shades of grey first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.