The Untitled Magazine got a chance to meet up with the director of Elles, Malgoska Szumowska, and lead actress, Joanna Kulig, who plays opposite Julliette Binoche, to talk about this brilliantly brave and controversial new movie. The film premiered in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival, and was released in cinemas on April 27th.
Elles presents the story of female student prostitution through the eyes of a journalist, Anne, played by Juliette Binoche, who interviews the girls for an article for Elle Magazine. The sophisticated Parisian and mother of two encounters what is for her an unraveling experience, as she delves into the underworld of these girls lives, and their stories about their experiences with clients. As the story progresses, she develops intimate friendships with the students she interviews. Alicja, played by the stunning Polish actress, Joanna Kulig, and Charlotte played by French actress Anais Demoustier, give intimate and highly realistic portrayals of these women who moonlight from their studies as sex workers. The film delves into the dark side of sexuality and self-inquiry, as sacred questions regarding money, sex, family and identity are questioned. Based on real interviews with modern day student prostitutes, the film provokes, entices and enthralls. Considered to be one of the most daring screen performances by Juliette Binoche to date, the film is an absolute must see.
Interview of Malgoska Szumowska and Joanna Kulig
Indira Cesarine: What was your inspiration behind making Elles?
MS: I had in my mind the idea to make a film about women’s sexuality. But I didn’t have a real platform to jump to make this film. One day in Copenhagen, I met a French producer, Marianne, who said to me, “I would like to make a film about students and prostitution at universities, and I’m searching for a director who is not French, somebody who has a different view, a different perspective on France.” I said to myself, it’s a great combination because I wanted to make a film about sexuality and the issue about student prostitution. It is something which is common, which is close. I didn’t want to make a social film. I prefer to make a film about something which is more unpredictable. And more surprising for the audience than just a social issue. I wanted to make a film without judging those girls. Not to put them in the position of victims. To show there is a kind of modern, okay let’s call it prostitution but they think they are not prostitutes. It’s complicated. In modern society this is something new. Because it is new, they are not victims. They are choosing the clients. They don’t feel guilty. They think it is a kind of normal way, of you know, working, I would say so. To cover the studies. It was kind of shocking for me. That is why I wanted to make the film.
IC: That’s interesting. I did notice that in the film the relationship between these girls, the way you depicted it, they were, for example, kissing their clients which normally in the history of prostitution that is like the first taboo – no kissing. It seemed that these guys were more like boyfriends than like clients.
MS: It’s new, because they are building a relationship. They are choosing the clients. And they are building a relationship which is not based only on a sexual relationship. And probably, because I spoke with those girls, the real girls, they are finding a piece of intimacy in paying sex. I think we have a lot of clichés in our minds, a lot of clichés about prostitution and about young girls who prostitute themselves. I think we are full of clichés. That is why I wanted to show something which is not a cliché. Some people think it is not realistic, but I know it is very realistic because I have spoken with those girls, that’s the fact.
IC: How did you research the subject matter? How did you get to see this underworld of prostitution with these young student girls?
MS: Exactly by meeting them. The French co-writer Tina and the French producer, they had met two girls in France. They are making a documentary with a French director, a documentary about those girls. But the girls said they are not allowed to show their faces. That final documentary is with the covered faces. We learned a lot from what they said to us. Also I found in Poland a girl, via Internet. I contacted the girl who said, “okay I can meet you, we can talk”. I was shocked because she was not ashamed of what she’s doing. She started the conversation with “yes I did the student prostitution and one year ago I quit.” Why did you quit? “Because the last client became my boyfriend and we wants to have a kid.“ I said okay, and he doesn’t have anything against what you did and that you were a prostitute? “No, he even likes it. We are happy.” Then she starts to talk to me like “This I like about sex and this no…” It was like two hours of this and I was really confused because I never expected something like this. I expected somebody who was like “yes, I did it because I have to. I didn’t have money for my studies. It was a terrible experience…” You know… !
IC: So interesting!
MS: So interesting! And I said to myself, “so interesting”. And I was walking home and even I was standing in the street and I was thinking, “It’s so strange…” Without judging really, without judging…. I was just surprised. And I said “It has to be in the film”!
IC: The documentary nature of some of the interview moments in the film, were any of those scripted based on the true stories of the girls you actually interviewed?
MS: Many, many, many. The big part of Joanna’s story is based on the real girl, the Polish girl, for example. The French girl she speaks with the same sentences which the real French girl used. Yes, a lot is from reality.
IC: So it has a very realistic point of reference.
MS: Very. But even so many people think that is absolutely not realistic.
IC: Oh no, I thought it was very realistic. It’s actually one of the most realistic films I’ve seemed in a long time dealing with these kind of women’s issues. Because most people are unaware of the reality of what’s going on. I knew girls when I was in university who were doing this, and that was almost twenty years ago.
So how did you cast the film?
MS: I’m never doing a typical casting because I don’t believe in a typical casting. When you are watching the casting, like, I don’t know, after more than 50 people I feel lost. Also I feel there is a wall between the director and people who are coming on the casting. They are not natural, the director is also not natural because it is a very artificial, fake situation. Usually I just see somebody in the film or in the theatre or even in the private life and I have an idea like, “Oh, this must be the person”. It was the same with the French girl. I saw her in the film…. It’s just by heart. I have to feel that somebody’s, you know, and even I like to write the script thinking of a special person.
IC: Joanna, how did you research for your role? Was it difficult to play a prostitute?
JK: It was difficult to play the prostitute. I didn’t have the research like Malgoska. It was difficult to organize more meetings with the prostitutes… But Malgoska was the best research. (laughter) We spent a lot of time in the restaurants to speak about the subject. Because, of course, I had to create this character and, of course, I had to know everything and Malgoska explained to me everything. Everything that Malgoska said, I was surprised… That these girls do not think they are prostitutes, “No. We are not!”
MS: “We are not prostitutes!” They think they are not…
JK: This was the first step for me to build the character.
IC: I understand that you didn’t speak French before the filmmaking?
JK: Yes! (laughing)
MS: Both. We both don’t speak French!
IC: That’s brilliant to direct a film in French when you don’t speak the language!
MS: Language, it really doesn’t matter. It’s music. If you can have a good ear you can know in which moment when the dialogue is not working.
IC: How did you prepare, because your french is very convincing in the film, so how did you manage to pull that off?
JK: Thank you. Thank you very much. Malgoska said that this is very important if I can have a good ear. I’m a musician, I play the piano and I’m a singer. They created for me some very interesting courses in french. It was really brilliant because I was sleeping during the sounds when I was listening to the french. And I had to repeat the lines while I was singing. It was like some kind of music. I thought, this is french, this is different… I don’t know, songs… I sang a lot of classical stuff that’s why I knew how to concentrate and think about the music and after find the emotions.
MS: Yeah, it is not that complicated to repeat your sentences, if you know what I mean.
JK: Improvisation was very difficult.
MS: Improvisation is difficult. In the improvisation, the fact was you didn’t understand a word that Binoche was saying to you. And she didn’t understand a word of your French. Then, I was laughing but finally it was a very good scene. This was the scene with the pasta.
IC: Oh, yes. Very realistic.
MS: They didn’t understand each other. It was like a documentary.
IC: So it was all improvisation?
IC: Were you doing this a lot during filmmaking?
MS: Yeah, yeah I was. That is my method.
IC: Do you consider the film to be a feminist film? It raises all these subjects of the morality of prostitution and brings to light a lot of the movements that have been going on as feminist movements for pro-sex work. Since the 70’s there’s been movements like Coyote where they believe in the decriminalization of prostitution and to help sex workers. And it is a very feminist point of view that women can take control of this kind of sex work and they don’t have to be victims. Do you feel, in a way, that this is a bit of a feminist movie that’s bringing up these subjects or how do you feel about that?
MS: When I was doing the film, or before film, I didn’t think about that. About feminist aspect of the film. I’m always trying to avoid connections with political movements or with social movements. If I’m doing a film, I’m not doing ideological films.. I’m doing just an honest thing from my heart, by my intuition. I don’t like to do the film for a kind of idea or theory. I’m really against this kind of thing. But, of course afterwards, I see the film is feminist. And I’m happy with it. For example in Poland, the feminists, part of them, they really like it. The other part, they don’t like it. But in general, they are in. They say that this is their point of view. They are happy about that in Poland, which is still a very traditional, very conservative society, that I’m showing that kind of point of view. I’m happy in the end, that it is a voice for feminism. I’m happy.
IC: Is there anything that you want the audience to take away after seeing this movie?
MS: Many things. I’m very happy if I see that people are touched by what they see and a bit confused. And that they are thinking about their own lives, their own marriages… What is it? Is it an illusion or not, if you know what I mean. If there is talk about sexuality. I like to put questions and when the audience is asking those questions after the movie, in their private life. Because the best thing in life is just to put questions, even without answers. But we still have to ask ourselves and ask the world what is going on and why? Sometimes it’s sad because there is no answer. But questioning is the process. It is the dynamic.
IC: I think it was brilliant the way you brought forward these subjects without being judgmental on the issues.
MS: I don’t want to be judgmental. Never. And for example, sometimes in Poland the very conservative press they don’t like it because they think I’m trying to say that prostitution is glamorous. They are really against that I’m not judging. But if an artist is judging from moral point of view, I think it has nothing to do with art. Because art is just putting a question.
IC: Joanna, what was the most challenging moment in the film for you?
JK: Of course, the most challenging moment was the sex scenes for me. Because I knew that… they were very difficult scenes in this movie. The beginning for me was very difficult. I didn’t understand exactly why. But after, when I understood it was easier.
MS: I think it was a challenging point for Joanna because she was so afraid of that scene. For three months she was afraid to do that, really.
IC: Which scene in particular?
MS: The scene with the client.
MS: The scene with the client when she is naked. When he is peeing on her…
IC: This was the most provocative scene in the film. You walk away from this and it is such a romantic moment yet he is peeing on her and she is clearly enjoying it in the film. That’s what it seems. They are very in the moment. It is one of those very provocative, cinematic moments that pushes Last Tango in Paris or any of the most historically provocative, cinematic sex scenes in a modern film.
MS: Yeah, it is. I agree it is provocative.
IC: It definitely makes you think.
MS: And for Joanna, it was amazing that for three months she was afraid of that scene. But what was challenging was that when she starts to do it, she did it very fast. In a few hours without any hysteria, no questions. Then I think it was a challenge for Joanna that she past herself like you know, the shame, past the shame. To be brave.
JK: Malgoska helped me out because she prepared for me some classical music and I was….
MS: She wanted to hear classical music!
JK: Yeah. Yeah. And everything. Of course there were only a few persons like…
MS: On the set. Not all the crew…
JK: On the set, yeah. Of course, this scene with the piss is very provocative. For me it was very difficult to keep concentrated!
MS: It was funny you know. When you are shooting this kind of scene, it is just funny.
JK: The scene was funny. On the sixth time [the juice machine] was broke so we had to stop. And everybody started to laugh. I had to be very concentrated. To have a serious face thinking about the subject. And I started to play and for two minutes, “Sorry! We have to stop. This machine doesn’t work with the juice!” And everybody….
MS: It is always so funny on the shoot.
IC: It is very realistic…
MS: When you see the sex scene on the screen, they are erotic, they are realistic ….
IC: They are very!
MS: And when your shooting them they are just very technical and pathetic!
IC: Well I guess it makes it easier to shoot them.
MS: Yes, it is easier. It is easier.
IC: It is a very brave film. I have to say congratulations. It is beautifully shot, it is beautifully presented, and it presents a lot of very brave subjects that I think are important for us to be talking about today in cinema and in reality. It really is a brilliant movie. So thank you so much for meeting with me!
JK: Thank you very much too.
MS: Thank you so much!
WATCH THE TRAILER OF ELLES IN CINEMAS NOW: