**1/2 (out of four)
When a young prostitute tells Anne (Juliette Binoche) that men appreciate the opportunity to fulfill fantasies they can't realize with their wives, I imagined syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage appearing on screen and asking, "Well, why do you think men feel unable to indulge kinks with their spouses?"
Unfortunately, Anne, a journalist writing a story for Elle about students earning money through the world's oldest profession, follows only a predictable line of questioning. The reporter struggles to focus on her reporting and instead develops a personal and possibly sexual interest in Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), who will almost certainly be played by Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants") and Evan Rachel Wood ("The Ides of March") should "Elles" ever receive an American remake.
Which it won't. Rated NC-17 for sex and nudity that's warranted for the story, "Elles" touches on men's secret behavior and women's place in a sex- and male-dominated world without offering a contemporary perspective on economic and academic struggles in France. Recently, the NC-17-rated "Shame" and Steven Soderbegh's stylish, chilly "The Girlfriend Experience" provided a more revealing look at both the sex trade and sex itself when common definitions of intimacy disappear. The ease with which Charlotte and Alicja begin the profession—post an ad, receive responses, bada bing—makes "Elles" enthralling regardless; it's sexy enough to arouse and honest enough to provide reasons to be turned off.
The movie also attempts to present both these women and Anne's young sons as kids out of reach from their parents. Perhaps the interviewer should have asked more of the questions she clearly wanted to know instead of saving her energy for dancing with her subjects and attending to her own desires while thinking about her reporting. You can't print the fantasy, which is one of the reasons to do the story in the first place.
**1/2 (out of four)