When I asked Polish film director Malgoska Szumowska to take me back to the origins of her new film “Elles,” which had its Tribeca Film Festival premiere on April 22, she said simply, “From the newspaper. There was an article in the newspaper about student prostitution at Paris University.” She said the idea was not to take a French perspective but find someone from Eastern Europe to provide an outsider’s perspective. She described the approach as, “Someone who can tell a story about French society who is not French.” Szumowska went on to explain, “Since I was interested in making a film about sexuality I found it very interesting. From the beginning I did not want to make a social film, just a film about sexuality and intimacy.”
“Elles” stars Juliette Binoche as Anne, a reporter writing a story about college girls in Paris who become prostitutes to cover the high expenses of city life. Anne’s relationship with her subjects causes her to take a strong look at her own life and marriage.
I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Szumowska and “Elles” actress Joanna Kulig on the day after the film’s premiere. We had an enjoyable time eating berries and talking about this provocative new film in a meeting room at the Crosby Hotel, on Crosby Street in Manhattan.
Szumowska said that she met Kulig at an audition and had her in mind when writing the character. She explained, “We were searching for somebody who speaks French. Unfortunately she didn’t speak French but she was so believable and full of power that I decided that she can learn French.” Kulig, who is Polish, did in fact learn French for the film.
When I asked Kulig about some of the film’s graphic sex scenes she said she was comfortable with them during the shoot but “before there was a lot of stress.” She said what helped her was the two week rehearsal period that the actors and director had prior to filming. “It was like when you prepare something in the theatre you have rehearsals,” she explained. “I had had some sex scenes on the stage and on the camera but not about this kind of subject. But because I knew everything about the character I knew the motivation. I knew this was an artistic movie. My nudity was like a costume.” She continued adding that in general her role, “was a very difficult part to play in my own language, but in French…”
Both director and actress pointed out the importance of having a two week rehearsal period prior to filming. They agreed that the better rehearsed the actors are the more room there can be for improvisation. Of her directorial approach Szumowska explained, “For me it is more about intuition. I don’t have a recipe. I just follow emotions.”
I pointed out to Szumowska the lack of any positive male characters in the movie. She explained, “The film is about prostitutes. The men who are in the film are clients. The client cannot be somebody who is a good person. The film is about women and women’s problems and women’s problems with sexuality. That’s why the men are not in a good role.” She added, “I’m not judging the world in black and white, like this is moral and this is not moral. That is not my style.”
“Elles” opens on Friday, April 27 at Angelika Film Center, 18 West Houston Street and Clearview Chelsea, 260 West 23 Street.