"They don’t think they are prostitutes," said Małgorzata Szumowska, the Polish director and co-writer of the new film "Elles," which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, of the women this movie is, at least in part, about. "Absolutely not. For them it is dating."
In a powerful examination of what constitutes sexual freedom and constraint, the film follows Anne (Juliette Binoche), a married, Paris-based journalist as she researches an article for Elles magazine on female university students who have sex for money. As the film shifts between Anne's interviews with the two students she's profiling, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), their encounters with their clients, and scenes of Anne's upper-crust domestic life -- preparing a dinner party for her BlackBerry-consumed husband's colleagues, dealing with a pot-addled teenager and video-game-obsessed child -- the girls affect her more and more, leading her to question the value of the life she has built for herself.
With its NC-17 rating, the movie won't be showing at most Americans' local multiplex, but HuffPost Women spoke to Szumowska about what inspired the film and the impact she hopes it will have.
What inspired "Elles"?
I was thinking about making a film about sexuality, but I didn’t have a subject. I met a French producer, Marianne Slot, and she had a subject, student prostitutes at universities. She said that she wanted to make a film about this.
I started to research, as did the French co-writer Tine Byrckel -- meeting these girls, reading a lot of articles, then step-by-step creating the script. It was two years of work.
You said you interviewed women who did this as part of your research. What was that like?
I met one girl who did this. She was absolutely not ashamed of what she doing. She wasn’t a victim. She was very intelligent, and she was quite satisfied with her life. I was a bit shocked because I thought I would meet someone ashamed, like, “Sorry, I had to do it because I didn’t have money to cover my studies.” This girl said, “Yeah, I did it. Now my last client is my boyfriend, I quit, and he wants to have a kid together. I’m satisfied by what I did because I know a lot about sex, and I enjoy it."
I didn’t expect [that attitude]. That's why I decide to use my reaction, and also the way she talked about it, in the film.
Alicja has just one client. Was that also based on the experiences of a real woman you met?
It’s a true story. This woman had a guy invite her for dinner. They had a dinner. Then another dinner. Then she told him that she didn’t have an apartment and that she was a student, and he said, "I can give you an apartment because I have a small one. You can live there." The sex didn't come immediately.
In the scene where Anne interviews Alicja in Alicja's apartment, Anne first says she doesn't drink and seems frustrated with Alicja's curt responses to her questions, then ends up getting drunk and dancing with the younger woman. What are we suppose to learn about Anne in this scene?
She comes for the interview having already pictured who Alicja is: "She is just a whore poor girl, and of course I feel sympathy, but at the same time I’m better. It's disgusting to be that kind of girl, but okay, I have to write a very liberal, tolerant article."
Then she sees that Alicja is full of life and has this animal sexual spirit that [Anne] doesn’t have, and lost probably many years ago because she is in a stale relationship with her husband. Anne starts to feel old, very old. When she gets drunk and is dancing with Alicja, it’s erotic and sexual, but it’s also about being free, even for one moment, even just because of vodka, being crazy, sexy, young again. She comes in with something completely different in her mind, and she leaves, unexpectedly full of life again.
One sex scene between Charlotte and a client turns violent. What was the purpose of showing that?
The purpose was [to show that] shit happens for the girls. I mean, it is not only a beautiful world, prostitution. Sometimes you make a mistake, you choose the wrong client. It happens.
The beginning of the scene, I think, is quite exciting, because the man is handsome, she is pretty, they are playing this game, and suddenly, it turns into this extremely violent and brutal, asexual thing.
[The point] was to question the audience about sexuality and men about how men treat the women in sex sometimes.
To what extent did porn affect the sexual scenarios you chose? A lot of the scenes between the girls and their clients seem very reminiscent of it.
I have to be honest: Before I start to work on the film, I hadn’t seen pornographic films because I don’t like [them]. I was never interested -- maybe a few seconds, the "Oh, no, switch it off." Then I said to myself, I have to see some pornographic stuff before I make this film. So I watched. Maybe it influenced me a bit, especially since I'd just watched it for the first time. A stronger inspiration was the film "Intimacy" by Patrice Chéreau. There is a lot of nudity and a lot of sex, and it looks like pornography, but it’s absolutely not pornographic.
One early criticism of the film was that Anne, the privileged journalist, is much more fleshed out than Charlotte and Alicja, the struggling young students who affect her so strongly. We don't see the girls' day-to-day life, their experiences at school, etc. What's your response to that critique?
It’s not a film about that. The whole idea was to make a film more about Anne than about the girls, and how the experience of the girls influenced Anne's life. A film about the girls who prostitute themselves [is] going to be a different film. We'd find, like in American films, a reason why, like they have terrible parents, for example, or they had a traumatic experience in childhood. I didn’t want to make that kind of film.
What message do you want viewers to take away from the film?
There’s not a message. It's more about putting uncomfortable questions -- about society, about loneliness, about sexuality -- to the audience and also to myself. I don’t know the answers; I’m not judging the situation. I want people leaving the theater and starting to ask each other those questions.
Maybe in America there is a different point of view on cinema -- very moralistic, very often giving answers: "This is good and this is bad and you have to be a good person," and that’s the message. I’m not making films with a message. I’m just asking questions.
So what were the most important questions, then, for you to raise in "Elles"?
One was about the lack of sexuality and love in couples. Is what the girls are doing bad, or is it worse to be in Anne and [her husband] Patrick's position, to not to have any sexual contact?
A kind of sexual frustration appears in marriage if the people are not taking care of the sexual aspect. First they turn into kids too much, and then they turn too much into work, and then they are too tired to have a real sexual relationship. They build two separate worlds next to each other. Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) searches for sexual [stimulation] in porn, on the Internet. Anne refuses sexuality, doesn’t think about it. She’s working, she’s writing articles. When she meets the girls and they are talking about sex in a very free way and they look paradoxically sexually satisfied, she feels a hole in her that comes from her loneliness. Missing sex is also missing love, in my opinion. I don't separate the two things.
It's a hard time for sexuality. People are so busy that sexuality turns mechanical. Like, let’s do it, ten minutes, bye. That's not sexuality. Sexuality needs time.