Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help you choose what to see. This week’s pick is a new film from France, Elles.

Since winning an Oscar for The English Patient more than 15 years ago, the lovely French actress Juliette Binoche has worked her magic on Broadway (in a potent performance in Betrayal) and in English-language film (including a follow-up Oscar nomination for Chocolat). As memorable as these performances, however, her string of incandescent portrayals in films from her native France have established Binoche as one of the most haunting and versatile actresses working on screen today.

From her beautifully modulated portrayal of a mother trying to keep life together in Flight of the Red Balloon to her uncanny look at a selfish sibling in Summer Hours to her heartbreaking take on a cynical married woman in last year’s Certified Copy, Binoche is never less than fresh, original and daring. Each performance is a work of art; each character the product of an actor’s strong instinct and a marvelous eye for rich material. Her choice to work, primarily, in French films is strong. She would not have the opportunity for such varied work if she limited herself to commercial English-language releases.

In Elles, Binoche adds to her gallery of fascinating women with an insightful look into the heart and mind of a woman trying to come to terms with the disappointments in her life. From her first moments on screen, Binoche creates a complete view of a married woman whose husbands disconnects, a mother whose children disengage, and a professional whose work as a writer provides her only window into worlds she would love to embrace. This woman, who experiences such emptiness in her real life, relies upon her observations of others to answer her questions and fill her days. As with the best of her work on screen, Binoche enriches every layer of this woman’s soul with respect and understanding.

On the surface, the character of Anne appears to have it all. Unlike many, she has a successful husband who is at least courteous, most of the time. Like many, she has children who may frustrate but ultimately follow her direction. Yet she is, from the moment Binoche introduces the character, so profoundly lonely, so desperate for experience, that she craves the sordid details of the women she interviews for her latest work. 

That she is, by all appearances, a writer of success, gives her access to women who might otherwise hide from attention. Anne probes their secret lives as prostitutes with more than a journalist’s curiosity; through their stories she searches for the meaning that has, over the years, disappeared from her own marriage, as she seeks to understand why men change as they age.

Like many character studies, especially those from France, Elles does not find it necessary to fill the screen with plot details or to tell its story in a linear manner. Sequences jump from one timeframe to another, sometimes without explanation, as if to underscore the frantic nature of Anne’s search. But the treatment never confuses. Because Binoche knows where she is in the story we never get lost. And because she continues to search for ultimate meaning we never grow tired of her journey.

Ultimately, Anne’s search may reveal more questions than answers, leaving us wanting to learn more about this interesting woman. In the hands of an actress so secure in her gifts, Anne becomes more than a character on the screen. Thanks to Juliette Binoche, she becomes a woman we want to know. 

Film Nutritional Value

Elles

* Content: High. Like the best of French films, Elles takes its time to develop character without obligation to conventional plot.

* Entertainment: High. Juliette Binoche, as usual, creates an indelible character of intensity and passion. She is wondrous in every film she makes.

* Message: Medium. We don’t need a moral to savor this story.

* Relevance: Medium. Any chance we get to watch an actress of this caliber is memorable.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The content will encourage dialogue about the realities of relationships among adults who choose to see the film.

(Elles runs 99 minutes. The film is rated NC-17, intended for adult audiences.)

4 Popcorn Buckets