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Separate lives; Superb performances turn ugly subject into good film

Her morning life couldn't possibly be more domestic. She flits around her small apartment in grungy pajamas, a ratty bathrobe, uncombed bedhead and no makeup. She gets her family off to school and work -- her two sons, her husband -- and then turns on classical radio, fluffs up some pillows on the couch and counts the cigarettes left in her pack.

She wants to make sure she's got enough while she works on the story on student prostitutes she's writing for Elle magazine.

But her two lives -- professional and domestic -- seem, right from the beginning to be intruding on each other in strange ways. Before she counts her cigarettes, in fact, we've heard her replay a tape of an interview with one of the student prostitutes in which the young girl (who barely looks to be out of her teens) said of her occupation "it's like smoking. It's hard to stop."

Actresses and public women in this country have suddenly made a big deal of having themselves photographed without makeup. It will probably surprise no one that the great Juliette Binoche -- who stars as the journalist in "Elles" -- spends at least half of the film without makeup and wearing the least glamorous wardrobe imaginable. Even when she's dressed for professional encounters with the outside world, Binoche has no compunction about doing a scene in which she drunkenly and sloppily laughs with a mouth full of food.

The great French actresses do things differently, that's for sure. And they always have.

But that doesn't mean that the French film by Polish director Malgoska Szumowska does. We're dealing with more than a little feminist cliche here for at least two-thirds of the way (including the doofus husband who warns his wife not to talk about feminism at dinner with his boss).

That's when we're invited to contrast the successful but arid sexually repressed bourgeois life of the wife, mother and journalist with the youthful sexual freedom of the surprisingly untroubled women who have decided that prostitution is a dandy way to pay for rent, food and college tuition.

As one puts it about sex with her boyfriend vs. sex with a client "with clients I feel more in control."

What distinguishes the movie for its first two-thirds are the superb naturalistic performances of Binoche and, as her baby-faced prostitute subjects, Anais Demoustier and Joanna Kulig as well as the brilliant naturalistic direction of Szumowska. This is a movie where domestic annoyances include the little things that keep you from closing your refrigerator door and the stuffed Spider-Man that keeps falling on top of people from its perch on the clothes dryer. If you think we're spared the passing detail of the heroine's constipation, think again.

It has more on its mind, though. (It could hardly have less.) By the time the film is over, the wife, mother and journalist sees clearly the whoring she does in her own life and the young call girls each discover that their profession isn't exactly trouble-free after all. Dangers lurk within every supposedly "controllable" client.

The news that whoring is by no means a gender specific activity doesn't seem to have reached this movie, but it's only about three women after all. Men will have to wait for Szumowska's next film.

It's properly rated NC-17 for much sex and nudity of all kinds. It's a good, if clinical, film redeemed by the gifts of its actresses and director and the undeniable perversity of its conclusion.

When it was all over, all I could think about was how stunning a film Alan Pakula's film "Klute" was in its time; and how stunning that call girl performance by Jane Fonda remains.




3 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Juliette Binoche, Anais Demoustier, Joanna Kulig.    

DIRECTOR: Malgoska Szumowska    

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes    

RATING: NC-17 for much sex and nudity and erotic frankness.    

THE LOWDOWN: A sexually repressed journalist investigates student prostitution and reassesses her life in light of it. In French with subtitles.