With a big-name cast and a controversial story line based around teenage prostitution, Szumowska shows the relativity and thin line between that which society deems repugnant and that which is considered normal but can become revolting
Elles / Sponsoring tells the story of Anna (played by Academy-Award winner Juliette Binoche), a well-to-do journalist, dedicated to her husband, sons and ever-challenging career who is preparing an article on prostitution among female students. While working on the material, she meets two teenagers who moonlight as prostitutes, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alice (Joanna Kulig). The young women introduce the journalist into their world of paid love - a repugnant reality. As the women’s connection deepends, Anna contemplates whether the relationships she has with the men in her life are really all that different from her subjects' connections with their clients. In an interview for Kino Lorber Szumowska explains, "We do all kinds of things for money. Juliette’s character accepts a lot of compromises. In addition to her work, she spends the day preparing a meal for her husband’s boss, and she doesn’t mention her frustrations or her opinions to him. As a director, I sometimes have to do things I find unpleasant. Why is sex so different?"
The movie seems to have a clear message: Anne envies Charlotte and Alice while the two girls seek the security Anne appears to be taking for granted. Amazed by the students seeming 'know better', their confidence and guilt-free enthusiasm, Anne questions her stable, bourgeois existence. In an interview for Indiewire Binoche, says, "Anne is not feeling fulfilled. She's envious in a way of those young girls’ freedom, and yet understanding it’s not that freeing, it’s damaging". On the other hand the story reveals that beyond the need to sustain themselves as students, acquire luxury items, as Binoche puts it in another interview for the New York Times online, Charlotte and Alice's need to prostitute themselves, "is related to a protection they’re looking for, and they can’t feel. There’s something in the structure of their heart that is not stable".
Elles is an almost entirely feminine project, strongly influenced by all the women who worked together on the film. The film met with mixed reviews during its rounds of the international festival circuit and audiences comment on the film’s numerous sex scenes. Some critics have found the film too sexual and not presenting enough depth to the purported subject at hand - the complex nature of human relationships. French Oscar Winner Juliette Binoche has received much praise for her role. The Guardian's Andrew Pulver writes that she "rises above the lubricious material by giving a thoroughly detailed and committed performance as the journalist".
The film was released in France in February 2012, receiving mixed reviews from French critics, with Roman-Catholic French daily Le Croix giving it a one-star rating and remaking that the "delicate subject, was, alas (...) staged veering into the grotesque". Film reviewers at the French magazine Elle, incidentally, liked the film, saying that the acclaimed actress took a risk by playing a character which was far from easy. The magazine gives five reasons to go and watch the film: Juliette Binoche's acting, Polish actress Joanna Kulig, the aesthetics of certain scenes, for the research into the subject done by (documentary filmmaker) Hélène de Crécy, and to participate in the discussion the film could cause.
While Elles has been sold for distribution in over 30 countries, including in the UK, Spain, Brazil and South Korea, in Poland critics were caught between praise and censure. Zdzisław Pietrasik of the Polityka weekly writes,
Szumowska has made a strong, moving film that bravely exposes the secrets of male and female sexuality. The first showings of Sponsoring have inspired varied reactions - some like it a lot, some reject it outright. But it was the same case with Szumowska's previous film 33 Scenes from a Life. And it will surely be the same with her next film Nowhere, about a Polish priest.
The film is a Polish, French and German joint production and confirms Polish-born French director Małgorzata Szumowska’s position one of the most famous female directors of the young generation. With three full-length features to her credit - her debut Happy Man / Szczęśliwy człowiek (2000), followed by Stranger (2004), and 33 Scenes From Life / 33 sceny z życia (2008) she has also made several documentaries and short films. Binoche opted to take the role of Anne after reading the script co-written by Szumowska. In an interview, the Oscar winner explains,
I read the script, I met her and I felt that she has a very strong character, which I value in a director. She knows what she wants and she's able to take a risk, to propose something that isn't in the script, such as when I asked for us to visit my father in the hospital and film a scene with him.
As a director Szumowska has won numerous awards at international and national film festivals. Her short film Silence / Cisza was included in a list of 14 best films in the history of the Łódź Film School, and a feature film screenplay It / Ono was recognised in the competition Robert Redford's Sundance Institute as one of the top three European screenplays. 33 scenes from life received a Special Jury Prize at the Locarno festival, and won Szumowska the best-director award at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia.
The worldwide première of Elles took place at Toronto International Film Festival, it premiered in America during the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. In February 2012, the film opened the Panorama section of the 62nd International Film Festival in Berlin.
Best Director Award for Małgorzata Szumowska at the 8th edition of the International Film Festival in Eurasia
- Elles (Polish title: Sponsoring) - directed by Małgorzata Szumowska; written by Tine Byrckel and Szumowska; director of photography, Michal Englert; edited by Françoise Tourmen and Jacek Drosio; art direction by Pauline Bourdon; costumes by Katarzyna Lewinska; produced by Marianne Slot. In French and Polish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. International co-production from Zentropa International Poland, Zentropa International Köln and French firm Slot Machine Cast: Juliette Binoche (Anne), Anaïs Demoustier (Charlotte), Joanna Kulig (Alicja), Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (Patrick), François Civil (Florent) , Pablo Beugnet (Stéphane) and Jean-Marie Binoche (Anne’s father).
Thumbnail credit: Małgorzata Szumowska and Juliette Binoche on the set of Elles, photo: Kino Świat
Sources: culture.pl, InDieWire, Kino Lorber, The New York Times
Editor: Marta Jazowska