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The provocative Elles gets too worked up for its own good

As she prepares for a dinner party and fields rude dismissals from her two spoiled sons, journalist Anne (Juliette Binoche) thinks back on her probing interviews for a just-filed French Elle profile of two student-prostitutes who cater to a rich "bored husband" clientele. That entering this line of work was a conscious decision for the two cash-poor young women, both dead-set on upward mobility, couldn't be more explicit: At one point, freckled Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) says she fears you can smell it on her — not her last liaison, she clarifies, but the housing projects where she has just visited her parents; when asked about her classes, Polish immigrant Alicja (Joanna Kulig) replies that she has been studying neo-liberal economist Greg Mankiw. Elles tracks Anne's evolving feelings about her subjects' line of work: shock at their casual attitude toward it, titillation at their descriptions of it, disgust at the depravity of the class she belongs to, and total revulsion at the realization that the indignities inherent in her haute housewifery are perhaps not so different from the ones Charlotte and Alicja face. It's entirely too much for co-writer/director Malgoska Szumowska to coherently flesh out in an hour and a half, especially with so much time dedicated just to the state of arousal. Getting hot and bothered by her flashbacks, Anne smells her hand after de-shelling a scallop and later vigorously masturbates while lying on the bathroom floor, trying to keep quiet so her kid doesn't hear.

 
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