There has been a full-frontal assault of sex and nudity onscreen at this year’s TIFF. It ranges from Last Tango in Toronto scenarios in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz to Michael Fassbender flashing some serious endowment in Shame. The festival is also thick with prostitutes. (I’m referring to the movies, not the parties—but who knows?) Fassbender’s character in Shame is hooked on hookers. In Fernando Mereilles‘ 360, Jude Law is a travelling businessman who risks his marriage to Rachel Weisz by arranging a call girl. The House of Tolerance luxuriates in a fin-de-siècle Parisian brothel. And Whores’ Glory goes behind the scenes of the global sex trade.
But the most astonishing portrayal of sex and prostitution is to be found in a superb French movie called Elles, directed by Polish filmmaker Malgoska Szumowska. Juliette Binoche stars as a Paris journalist researching a magazine piece about student prostitutes. As two of her subjects talk about their tricks—shown in graphic interludes—her maternal concern for the young women gives way to a disturbing envy. Based on a documentary, Elles doesn’t glamorize prostitution, but it ditches the usual clichés to portray a generation of empowered, self-employed hookers who claim to enjoy their work. They cast their tricks, choosing men they find at least minimally attractive. Their problems are with their social invisibility and hiding their profession from their family.
By a fluke, I watched Elles at its TIFF premiere seated directly behind the star and her director. In my long years as a film critic, this has never happened before, and it was downright weird, seeing every nervous twitch and laugh from these two women in the foreground of their film. Like a scene from an Atom Egoyan movie. It was especially strange during Juliette Binoche’s masturbation scene: watching her watching herself struggle to attain orgasm.
The following day, in a rooftop lounge of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, I interviewed Binoche, and our conversation inevitably turned to that scene. (She was the one to bring it up.)
“I felt a little uncomfortable last night,” she admitted, laughing. “It is acting, of course.” For inspiration, she said her director provided her with some 60 online videos of women masturbating. Not porn actresses, but civilians. “What’s striking is that they almost look like babies sometimes, and other times it’s like giving birth, or death. Some are faking it, and some are in the moment and not faking anything.”
For her own prolonged scene, Binoche assured me that her orgasm was simulated. “I’m an artist,” she said. “I just used my skills and body to recreate something. It’s like a Goya painting. Or sculpting.” It helped to include the crew in the process, she added. “I remember laughing because Malgoska would really get into it. She was as frightened as I was.” Actors, she added “have to have the courage to show intimacy. That’s what we do. In crying there’s a lot of intimacy.”
The first time Binoche saw the film, she thought her pale complexion was simply not credible for a woman reaching orgasm. So at her urging, the filmmaker had her face digitally reddened in post-production. When Binoche saw herself in the completed film at the TIFF premiere, she was satisfied.