Elles -- Film Review


Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

This film is both good and ridiculous at the same time.  Americans aren't going to like it, especially women.  We don't understand commercial sex in this country, and furthermore, we're not even curious about it, even in a prurient way.  It's too repugnant to even contemplate, let alone take seriously.  In the theater where I saw this film, there were maybe ten people.  The film is in French with subtitles, and as an American, I never forgot for a minute that I was not watching Americans.  This film wouldn't be made in America, by Americans.  It is too frank and candid about sex, the sex is explicit, and the whores are sympathetic, likeable people.  They're just wholesome, middle class girls who are going to school and living at home, but they have a sideline that they have to keep quiet about.  (I don't like the word 'prostitute.'  It has too many syllables, and it is at once euphemistic and disparaging.  I prefer 'sex worker,' or 'whore.'   'Sex worker' is descriptive and neutral.  'Whore' is plain, rough, and earthy.)  Anaïs Demoustier, as Lola, is particularly captivating, because she is a young looking girl with freckles and sweetness:  not the stereotypic hard-edged American whore.  The encounters between the girls and their clients are warm and humane, and sometimes even passionate.   They seem to be enjoying themselves in their work and there is an atmosphere of good feeling.  The film enables one to see that whores are not that different from any girl one might meet.  Girls can have another side not readily visible.  Americans don't like to hear this.  We want a hard line between "whores" and all other women, so that they can be despised without mitigation.  This film erases that line, and thus it won't be popular in America because it challenges our simpleminded stereotypes. 

If you are not an American reading this, or you have not spent considerable time in this country, then you cannot fathom the impact that the last century of criminalization of commercial sex has had on relations between men and women in this society.   Relations between men and women here are abysmal.  Most people's sex lives are dull, unexciting, troubled, or nonexistent, whether they are married or not.  There are many exceptions, or course, but the rule holds.  No one comes to America for sex tourism -- unless they are men looking for a gay scene.   American women are not known for being sexually forthcoming, and this tempers the atmosphere of social life throughout society.  One thing commercial sex does, and it can be seen in this film, is that it opens many avenues of communication between the sexes.  Sex is fundamentally communication, and sex facilitates communication on many levels between people beyond the satisfaction of lust.  Lola remarked that what surprised her about her clients was not their sexual preferences, but how freely they talked.  She learned about their jobs, their wives, their worries and fears, other interests they had, and many small facts about them apart from sex that she never expected to learn.  Sexually they are bored with their wives.  Their marriages are emotionally dead, but the men are not, so they reach out to a young girl, even if they must pay her.  But it is mutually advantageous.  The young girl needs the money and the independence it brings, and the older man needs the sex and the companionship of a female.  But paying for sex makes it simple and easy; it limits the relationship between the partners, and this is a great advantage if you happen to be married.  This is the positive side of commercial sex.  It provides some relief and diversion from the grim reality of most marriages, and it gives young girls a chance to become economically empowered and independent from their families. 

There is a lot of food preparation and eating in this film.  I wish there had been more sex and less eating.  The film is too long and slow moving, but little by little, it does make its case.  The moral of the story seems to be that marriage is sexually dull, and if you want to want to have a good sex life, you need to go to a whore or be a whore.  That's the ridiculous part of the film.  The film presents a bleak picture of marriage, which may indeed be representative, but is not necessary or inevitable.  I don't know what the facts on the ground are in France regarding marriage.  In the United States marriage is in decline.  (If you happen to be in a good one, you don't know that.)  The divorce rate is around fifty percent.1, 2  In fact for the first time in history we have more single people in the United States than married.3, 4  About a quarter of the U.S. population lives alone.3  The reasons for this are not only economic.  There is warfare between the sexes in the United States.  Government policies suppress sexual desire toward women and young girls, and the disenfranchisement and criminalization of commercial sex is its most visible cultural manifestation.  Marriage between one man and one woman is the only socially legitimate venue for sexual expression, and that must be kept strictly private.  Gay people are currently challenging this against great resistance.  But rolling back the ban on commercial sex does not even occur to most Americans, and it is an extraordinary omission in a country that commercializes everything in sight and measures the value of any activity by the revenue it can generate.  Legitimizing commercial sex would make sexual activity an acceptable form of conduct and an acceptable way to relate to other people in a broad range of situations.  Legal commercial sex would make sex a much more visible part of daily life and a much more accessible part of daily life for most people.  This would facilitate communication between the sexes -- not necessarily understanding, but communication.  Currently communication between the sexes in the United States is distorted and confused.  Men and women are misunderstanding each other in so many ways, and it is rooted in the animosity toward male desire that has been institutionalized in our legal system for about a century now.  Ending the hegemony of asceticism over American social life would begin to break down the walls of paranoia and estrangement that are so pervasive in this society.  It is the most obvious and straightforward way to improve relations between the sexes in this country and the quality of our social life generally.

Let me elaborate on this with an example.  One time I went out with a woman from Argentina.  She had not been in the United States long, perhaps a couple of weeks.   Somewhere during the course of the afternoon she abruptly said, "Can I ask you something?" "Sure." "Why is it that when I walk down the street here, no one speaks to me?"  "What?"  "Yesterday I went to the De Young Museum.  I was there for three hours and not one person spoke to me.  Why is that?"  I didn't know what to say.  The question completely stymied me.  Americans who live in cities do not expect strangers to speak to them in public places.  If they do, we immediately become suspicious and defensive.  That's perfectly normal.  A woman who expects and welcomes banter from strangers in public places is definitely not an American.  It illustrates the extent to which paranoia (and its constant companion, asceticism) dominate American social interactions to the extent that we don't even notice how strange it is.  American women are naturally skittish and reserved in the presence of men.  They instinctively realize that sexual desire and animosity are lurking just below the surface of any slight interaction.  Keeping the lid on that simmering volcano requires considerable avoidance and heavy handed social pressure.  It has taken us a long time to establish those barriers to the point where they seem normal and civilized.   Legitimizing commercial sex would radically alter that low temperature social culture that prevails in the United States.  This film, although in French, contributes toward this in a modest way by removing some of the myths and nonsense Americans have in their heads about commercial sex.  But few American are going to watch this film.  It's too good for us. 

The film did not emphasize the vulnerability of the girls and the hazards they face as sex workers.  It touched on it a little bit, but the girls did not display a sense of imposing vulnerability.  In America women who try to engage in sex as an entrepreneurial venture are extremely vulnerable to (male) criminal organizations.  This is because it is illegal and not protected by the police and the judicial institutions of society.  In America, if you engage in commercial sex and you have a problem, you're on your own.   Thus the need for pimps and organized crime, and the result is that commercial sex is forced to the darker margins of society and remains ever stigmatized.  In France, commercial sex is legal, but there are numerous restrictions, and in recent years government policies are becoming more repressive and the influence of organized crime over the trade is consequently becoming greater.5

The married older journalist (Juliette Binoche) who is interviewing the girls for an article in the film slowly evolves into a whore herself.  This is another ridiculous aspect of the film.  The implied merging of wife and whore is a popular myth among sex workers, but marriage and commercial sex are very different kinds of relationships and very different social positions.  The journalist's marriage is ruinous and she seems to find respite in her association with the two whores with whom she seems to become friends -- just as men in bad marriages find consolation with whores also.  She seems to envy them and moves toward identifying with them as the film progresses.  It tends to imply that the lives of sex workers are better than the lives of married women.  This is nonsense.  Sex work is not better than marriage.  Marriage is generally better, but sex work is also valuable and a necessary adjunct to marriage.  This is what French society seems to know, but American society fails to recognize.   Men need both their wives and their whores.  Both should be equally recognized, equally legitimate, and equally protected by social institutions.  We are unfortunately living in a time when the values of asceticism dominate our law and our social life.  But I have the sense that that long dreary era is ending, and this film, although flawed, does help to dispel some of the myths and popular nonsense about commercial sex. 

1.  Kreider, Rose M. and Jason M.Fields, 2001. Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: Fall 1996.  Current Population Reports, P70-80. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.

"In summary, the general marital pattern for the last half of the twentieth century can be described by both delays in marriage and a period of a rapid increase in the likelihood of divorce." (p. 3)

2.  National Vital Statistics Reports,  Volume 58, No. 25.  August 27, 2010.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System. 

3.  Hobbs, Frank.  Examining American Household Composition: 1990 and 2000. U.S. Census Bureau. Washington, DC.  August, 2005.  "Householders living alone had become the most common specific household structure in 2000." (p. 1)  More than a quarter of the U.S. population lives alone (p. 6)  

4.  Daphne Lofquist, Terry Lugaila, Martin O’Connell, and Sarah Feliz.  Households and Families 2010.  U.S.Census Bureau, Washington, DC.  April, 2012.  

"In 2010 less than half of all households (48 per­cent) were husband-wife house­holds, down from 52 percent in 2000 and 55 percent in 1990. This is the first time that husband-wife families fell below 50 percent of all households in the United States since data on families were first tabulated in 1940." (p. 5)

5.  John Lichfield, The Independent.  March 21, 2005