Malgoska Szumowska's Elles opens with a tastefully depicted blow job, a scene wreathed in shadows and silhouettes. It nearly ends with another, but pulls back, instead abandoning its heroine to the mundane pleasures of a routine family breakfast. These two incidents say a lot about the film, hinting at both its forthright but circumspect handling of sex and its probing yet still somewhat shallow examination of the classic mother/whore dichotomy.
Anne (Juliette Binoche) is a harried magazine journalist, juggling the demands of motherhood with a quickly approaching deadline. She's working on a story about a specific sort of prostitute, young female students who use part-time sex work to put themselves through university. This type is explored through her interviews with Alicja (Joanna Kulig) and Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), who ply their trade discretely, living ordinary lives while handling a small roster of regular clients. Despite Anne's initial expectations, she finds that these girls aren't all that different from herself, motivated women who are surprisingly well-adjusted and comfortable with their jobs.
Flashbacks detailing their stories are mixed in with those of Anne at home, scrambling to finish her article while dealing with two difficult young sons and preparing an elaborate coq au vin dinner. It's a situation that sets her up as the obvious inferior to her businessman husband, Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who views that night's meal with his boss as the main event. Its hackneyed setups like this—the ostensible career woman still trapped in the stifling role of the housewife—that make Elles feel so uninspired. Binoche does her best, flinging herself into a gauntlet of domestic scrapes: burnt hands, cut fingers, and bouts of interrupted masturbation. It's a great performance, but one that's unfortunately sandwiched within a self-serious, insipid feminist inquisition.
The film is ultimately draining because of the way it handles Anne, stranding a potentially dynamic character in two dueling scenarios, both of which are drab and unsurprising. It's the kind of portrayal that ends up seeming regressive in its simplicity, with the conception of all men as latent sexual predators and all women as eventual victims of their cruelty. The moonlighting prostitutes, who think that they've mastered the tricky balance of handling their clients, both find that things are scarier than they could have imagined, with predictable scenes of misogyny, violence, and tears. On Anne's side, inequality appears in a milder, socially acceptable form, with women forced into tightly circumscribed roles. These points may be valid, but they feel recycled from an earlier vanguard of feminist cinema, and there's something insulting in the way the movie sets up its female characters up as marks, introducing their apparent autonomy only to pull the rug out from beneath them.
This kind of treatment establishes Elles as a work whose views on sexuality aren't always as progressive as they might seem. There remains an insistent air of prudishness throughout, and it's never completely unclear who's responsible, the tightly wound Anne or the director herself. Like that opening sex scene, presented just muddily enough to seem both slightly lurid and tastefully grave, Elles comes off as equally simplistic and indistinct.