Elles Film Critique Essay

Thirty-six years after the Beach Boys first sang the praises of California girls, Legally Blonde lifts up an unofficial ambassador for what may be the West Coast’s most superficial subculture. Part Valley Girl, part Malibu Barbie, Elle Woods is a perky, style-conscious sorority babe draped in pink and eager to solve the world’s fashion emergencies. She lives for the latest issue of Cosmopolitan, cleverly themed campus mixers and to hear her steady boyfriend, Warner, propose marriage. But just when she thinks he’s about to pop the question, he drops a bombshell on this bombshell, explaining that his future in law school and politics demands a more "serious" woman—more Jackie Kennedy than Marilyn Monroe. She’s out. Harvard is in.

A desperate Elle wants to win Warner back, so she applies to Harvard Law School. And wouldn’t you know, this fashion merchandising major whose most impressive résumé item was appearing in a Ricky Martin video gets in! (Harvard must believe that any PR is good PR.) Pretty soon, Elle is so beaten down by the snobby, backbiting Ivy Leaguers that her motivation shifts from wooing Warner to proving herself bright enough to make the grade and, eventually, help prove the innocence of a woman accused of murdering her husband. With a few lucky breaks, she does both, standing by her principles and being true to herself in the process. Think Clueless-meets-Erin Brockovich.

positive elements: On the whole, Legally Blonde has a good heart, which is essentially the heart of Elle. Her outlook on the world may be jaded by superficial totems, but she’s not at all selfish, and goes out of her way to show kindness and compassion to everyone she meets. Elle befriends a manicurist struggling with her own self-worth, and proceeds to spice up her life. When she overhears a geeky law student being rejected and put down by a girl he asked out, Elle steps in and jeopardizes her own social status by raising his (she pretends to be brokenhearted that he never returned her phone calls). Elle refuses to believe the worst about Brooke, the client she’s involved in defending. And when Brooke confides in Elle, the budding law student refuses to violate that trust even when doing so could further her legal career. When others are cruel to her, Elle doesn’t retaliate; she just doubles her efforts to prove her true character and intelligence. She rejects the sexual advances of a professor. At her graduation from Harvard, Elle hails "passion, courage of conviction, and a strong sense of self" as cornerstones for success. At one point, she encourages a colleague, "You need to have a little more faith in people." With the aid of a positive attitude, hard work and an unwillingness to hold a grudge, she has the ability to turn enemies into friends. People change their opinions of Elle and develop respect for her (the audience included), proving that first impressions and outward appearances can be misleading.

spiritual content: Elle refers to Cosmopolitan magazine as "the bible."

sexual content: The opening credits play over shots of young women in revealing outfits and bikini underwear. Many shots of girls in revealing swimwear. Dialogue includes crass sexual innuendo, anatomical slang, and a classroom discussion about sperm donors, one-night stands and masturbation. Elle’s California girlfriends joke about STDs and giving a teacher a lap dance. In court, Elle recalls a wet T-shirt contest. There are also references to lesbianism and homosexuality.

violent content: Some slapstick violence. In the courtroom, lawyers describe a bloody murder.

crude or profane language: A dozen exclamatory uses of God’s name make up approximately one-third of the film’s pointless profanities (two s-words, no f-words).

drug and alcohol content: Quite a bit of social drinking, but no one gets drunk. Elle and Warner enjoy wine at dinner, and the fermented grape is also consumed at a Harvard party. Frat guys carry a keg of beer, apparently on a mission of excess. Other characters drink beer as well. Elle’s dad appears only twice throughout the movie, a martini in hand each time. A girl claims to have been involved in "Lesbians Against Drunk Driving." After Elle gets dumped by Warner, her friends suggest that she take the narcotic painkiller Percocet.

other negative elements: Nothing against the film’s girl-power emphasis, but with one exception (Luke Wilson), the noteworthy men in this story are either vacuous hunks, self-important jerks, emasculated gays or inept dweebs. Statements like "Men are big fat retards" add to the male-bashing. Elsewhere, Elle’s refusal to betray Brooke’s confidence has a moral flip side that gets glossed over. It seems the exercise-video guru’s alibi is that she was getting liposuction at the time of the murder (the big secret), and if word gets out, her reputation would be ruined. Okay, Brooke may not be a murderer, but don’t her fans deserve to know that she’s a fraud? Also, the play on words in the title comes across as rather insensitive to those who are indeed "legally blind."

conclusion: Not groundbreaking stuff, but Legally Blonde does what it set out to do—provide light summer entertainment. Witherspoon is very good as Elle, a ditz of substance who could have been cloying, but comes across as charming instead. Despite some convenient and illogically truncated plot turns, the good-natured story drew me in anyway. I enjoyed witnessing Elle’s positive impact on the people around her. In a sea of Hollywood cynicism, Legally Blonde isn’t too hip to uphold virtue. Even so, this fish-out-of-water comedy/courtroom drama still resorts to language and humor that will have families citing it for contempt.

In case you have forgotten, all women are prostitutes, and all men are johns. Strip away the trappings of upscale bourgeois life, and a wife — even an upscale professional wife — is a household slave, expected to cook, clean and take care of the children. Her husband might deign to make love to her after she cooks a fancy dinner for his boss. All it takes for her to keep the peace is some well-timed flirtatious role-playing. But he has to initiate the amorous reward. Sounds very 1970s, doesn’t it?

But in the Polish feminist director Malgoska Szumowska’s film “Elles,” that supposedly glaring truth becomes clear to Anne (Juliette Binoche), a freelance journalist, while she is researching a magazine article about student prostitution. To her shock she discovers that the negative clichés about the world’s oldest profession may have been wildly exaggerated. Inconveniently, the stories the young women tell of their adventures turn her on.

“Elles,” along with the documentary “Whores’ Glory,” is one of two films about prostitution released today by Kino Lorber. Beyond their subject they have virtually nothing in common.

The more wholesome of Anne’s free-spirited interview subjects is Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), a Parisian student who advertises herself as Lola and can’t afford an apartment without resorting to prostitution, usually serving men old enough to be her father. Alicja (Joanna Kulig), an upwardly mobile Polish immigrant who lives with her mother, wants a higher standard of living sooner rather than later. The details of their lives remain much too sketchy to provide clear pictures of their circumstances. We don’t even know what they want to study or at which school.

The movie gives itself away on the evening of Anne’s dinner party when her husband, Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), returns from work shortly before the guests are to arrive and in a tone of weary condescension, begs her, “Promise me, just for tonight, you won’t say your feminist stuff.”

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