Everyone knows that in movies sex sells. So that when Polish writer-director Malgoska Szumowska combined two young women selling sex to finance their studies in Paris with French cinema icon Juliette Binoche, she soon had distribution around the globe.
“This is first time in my life that I've had a commercial success,” Warsaw-based Szumowska admits at the Berlin Film Festival. “My first feature was nominated for a European Film Award [Happy Man (2000) and Stranger (2004) both received European discovery prizes at The European Film Awards] and I have a long history at international festival markets ever since my short films screened there. I made my previous three films in co-production with Germany, but Elles is a co-production with France.”
Unlike in Australia and New Zealand where women directors have been allowed to flourish, in Poland they are a rare breed, Szumowska says. While she enjoyed the help of her friend, Agnieszka Holland, who read the Elles screenplay and offered a few tips, the fact that Szumowska is a force of nature has led at least in part to her current success.
“I have a very male character and I am a very strong personality,” she says. “I've never put myself into the position of being the weaker sex. Never. But of course, it's hard in Poland because of our Catholic history and because of tradition. The problem is that the women are mostly at home taking care of the kids and the men aren't doing too much of that. There is a feministic movement but politicians are calling them 'ugly lesbians' and using all these terrible clichés. It's also been really hard because the whole structure of the country is being rebuilt. The position of women in France is much better than in Poland.”
Elles, which she co-wrote with Tine Byrckel, is not really about Poland, or France. It focuses on the attitudes of differing generations to love and sex and applies to women everywhere. Binoche, a journalist for Elle magazine in Paris, outwardly has a stable family life — a husband and two male teenage kids who all expect to be waited on. When she goes to interview the two female students, French Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Polish Alicja (Joana Kulig), who support themselves by having sex largely with married men, her maternal concern for the young women gives way to a disturbing envy and she begins to question her own existence.
“I wouldn't say the women are involved in prostitution, I would call it sponsoring,” Szumowska asserts. “Prostitution is when you are a victim, when you are on the street, when you are forced to do that — and they are not forced to do that. I met these kinds of girls in Poland and I was really shocked but not in a moral or a judgemental way. They were just so open and would say, 'Yes I like it; I don't feel guilty; I'm not ashamed of it. I try to keep my normal life, I also have a family.' Then they'd go into detail about the sex. I am very open but I was a bit confused and I found it very interesting for Juliette's character that she also has to be confused, because those women have a special strange freedom in what they are doing.”
The happily married Szumowska explains that because she grew up with Catholicism and the spectre of AIDS, sex was usually connected to love. Yet the new generation has no such constraints.
“They don't care. It's like eating. It's about consumption. People just want to afford a better life. Ultimately, our sexual fantasies are missing, not for men maybe, but for women.”
In her work with Binoche, Szumowska drew on the realistic portrayals the actress had delivered in the movies of Michael Haneke, rather than on her more ethereal work with Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski in Three Colours: Blue. (Szumowska met the late Polish master when he was teaching at ÅódÅº Film School where she studied and prefers his more naturalistic earlier films like 1988's A Short Film About Love.)
“To create a picture of Juliette as extremely beautiful and looking like an angel is not how I do things,” Szumowska admits in her forthright manner. “I was searching for a woman of a certain age who is beautiful but who you can see is getting older and I was searching for somebody who can show that. When I saw Juliette in Caché [Hidden]—I'm a big fan of Haneke—I said to myself, this is her new face. I have never seen her like this before. She was so normal. When I met her I asked if she could play the character without make up, as somebody we can see at home, and she became really excited. She is very open and I think she was searching for that kind of part.”
Elles marked Szumowska's first experience of working with a major star and she was surprised by Binoche's generosity, especially when it came to the young actresses.
“Joana doesn't speak French but Juliette really supported her. She supported both of the actresses, and me too. She really trusted me and because of her trust, she gave me a huge self-confidence. She said, 'Let's do this together.' This was amazing.”
There's no doubting that Szumowska forged a strong bond with Binoche, and she says it's no coincidence that Binoche's mother is of Polish descent. “There's something strange in us Poles that we are very emotional and Juliette is also like this. Everyone is saying she is so French, I don't think so. Not at all.”
Certainly Szumowska can be convincing, as are many scenes in her film. She managed to convince Binoche to act out masturbating at one crucial moment and Szumowska used an Australian website, BeautifulAgony.com, for the actress to watch in her preparation.
“They are all masturbating with a camera as they are lying on the floor,” Szumowska explains. “There are thousands of films on the site and Juliette saw about 50 of them. I presented it to her and I said, 'You have to do it with the same face'.” And Binoche did.
Elles is screening at the 2012 French Film Festival. For more information visit the official website.