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When Prostitution is a Deliberate Choice

In Malgoska Szumowska’s explicit film Elles, Juliette Binoche meets two young women who have found an interesting way to pay for their education.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Elles. How do you describe the movie in your own words?

Malgoska Szumowska: Elles is a film about women's sexuality and intimacy, and about prostitution that is all around us: in life, in marriage, and in work.

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story, both as a writer and as a director?

Malgoska Szumowska: My first meeting with a real girl who was a student prostitute got me into the story 100%. I found her to be a young independent person who was not ashamed of what she was doing, who spoke loudly about sex in many ways, and who didn't try to paint her own portrait as a victim, but as someone who made a choice to do it, to make money. I was a bit shocked, and my attitude and reaction is reflected in the film in Juliette Binoche's character.

Tribeca: Prostitution is a tough subject, and your film is quite explicit. Did those challenges affect your casting process? Did you cast Juliette Binoche first, or the two young women?

Malgoska Szumowska: After my personal reaction, which I mentioned, I decided to concentrate even more on the character of the journalist, and from the beginning I wanted to work with Juliette. I loved her performance in CachÈ by Michael Haneke. (Funny, she came to my mind not through a Kieslowski’s film, but through Haneke.) 

I saw the Polish girl Joanna Kulig in a film and immediately wanted her for the part, even though she didn't speak French. And Anaïs Demoustier came from Soige Sage, the French film. I don't like to do big casting calls; I love to see people on the screen and feel the connection.

Tribeca: Speaking of Binoche, she was just phenomenal. (All three of your leads were, in fact.) How did you work with your cast? Was there room for rehearsal and improvisation?

Malgoska Szumowska: Oh, yes. My DP Michal Englert and I shot all the scenes with Juliette with a small camera in my apartment in Paris—all the scenes of Anne from the script. It took one week.

Anyway, my style is improvisation. After rehearsals, I'm always changing things while I’m shooting. I'm the type of director who is very close with the DP. Michal and I have made all my films together, working as a team. Our style is to improv—give the space to the actors, work with a hand held camera, and be flexible. Juliette liked this searching. I feel the immediacy of what I need to do right when I'm standing on set. With Joanna Kulig and Anais, we also rehearsed before, checking dialogue and emotions.

Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?

Malgoska Szumowska: The scene with all clients around Anne’s table. Michal and I found that idea while shooting, just two days before shooting the dinner scene. We convinced Marianne Slot, our producer, to organize it very quickly. The Polish actor Andrzej Chyra, who played one of clients, had to come from Poland. We did it very spontaneously, and the whole crew was clapping; it was a touching moment. It just came to us…

Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers? Though you are an experienced filmmaker, was there something new you learned making Elles?

Malgoska Szumowska: Many things—with each film I learn something new. This is the first film in my career made totally outside Poland, in French, with a star. There were many expectations from producers, funders and world sales agents.

You have to find space inside you that is only your own—you have to see it from a distance, and not get too emotional about it. I believe that the most important issue for filmmakers is to have a strong passion, and to fight for your passion and be yourself.

Tribeca: What appeals to you about bringing your film to Tribeca? How do you suspect American audiences will react to Elles?

Malgoska Szumowska: I was always dreaming to come to Tribeca with this film. I love the Festival like everybody does; I’m not very original. New York and the special mood of this film festival seem to be cozy, but maybe I’m wrong?

I believe in the American audience’s honest reaction—they just react. Sometimes in Europe, people pretend reactions.

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

Malgoska Szumowska: Tarkovsky.

Tribeca: What’s your favorite New York movie?

Malgoska Szumowska: Everyone Says I Love You, by Woody Allen.

Tribeca: And finally, what makes Elles a Tribeca must-see?

Malgoska Szumowska: The great acting of Juliette Binoche and the two young actresses.


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