TRICKS, NO TREATS
Elles Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
THE past couple of years have seen several films deal with the contemporary phenomenon of what might be called ‘‘ amateur’’ prostitution, the entry into the world’s oldest profession of students and other young women forced by the global economic crisis to find lucrative ways to survive in an increasingly stressful world. Australian films Sleeping Beauty and Careless Love are just two of several films from different countries that have tackled this subject. Now comes Elles, a French-Polish-German coproduction made by a Polish woman director, Malgoska Szumowska, in which the central character, Anne, played by Juliette Binoche, is a Paris journalist researching an article about contemporary prostitution for Elle, a monthly magazine. Anne is well-to-do, with a busy husband, Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who is both distant and demanding, and two sons who are each, in their different ways, addicts — Florent (Francois Civil) to marijuana and Stephane (Pablo Beugnet) to video games. Poor Anne doesn’t stand a chance in this male-dominated environment, and the situation is making her increasingly resentful and unhappy.
Committed to writing an article about contemporary prostitution, Anne has placed ads in newspapers that have resulted in contact with two young women, Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig). Both work independently and both appear perfectly happy with the choices they have made. Charlotte can afford a much better apartment than the one she had before she became a sex worker, while Alicja, who is Polish, can afford the smart clothes she likes to wear. We see these women in interviews with Anne and at work with clients, in scenes that have earned the film its R18+ rating, though no actual hard-core material is involved.
Szumowska and her co-screenwriter, Tine
(R18+) ★★★✩✩ Limited national release from Thursday ★✩✩✩✩ National release from Thursday
(MA15+) Byrckel, appear to believe a woman in Anne’s position is just as guilty of prostituting herself as the women she interviews. As she struggles to meet the magazine’s deadline she is also involved in preparing an elaborate meal (coq au vin with riesling, the same dish one of the prostitutes learned from a client) for Patrick’s boss and some business colleagues. With sons who despise or ignore her and a husband who obnoxiously uses her, can Anne (the film asks) really claim to be a free woman? The point is needlessly underlined when she rubs lotion on the feet of her hospitalised father (Jean-Marie Binoche), a scene staged to emphasise her subservient status.
For the most part, the clients of Charlotte and Alicja appear to be considerate and decent, more so than the men in Anna’s life, though there’s a notable exception in one sadistic customer who reminds us that life as a sex worker is fraught with hazards. Nonetheless, in order to bolster its position, the film tends to emphasise the upscale side of the ‘‘ business’’, and many may find objectionable the very concept, even though it carries a certain amount of weight.
The film is strong on performance, with Juliette Binoche giving a typically robust and nuanced portrayal. I was interested, too, to see Krystyna Janda, the Polish actress who gave notable performances in several Wajda, Zanussi and Szabo films of the past, appearing as Alicja’s mother. IF you thought Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was bad enough, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is here to prove you wrong. Gruesomely vile and violent, this ludicrous affair revels in scenes in which women are punched, kicked and brutally manhandled, while men are torn apart or simply crushed. It’s all in good fun, of course, as the Norwegian writer-director, Tommy Wirkola, assured a preview audience, while noting that he got the idea while studying film at the Bond University in Queensland.
The ‘‘ idea’’ is that Hansel and Gretel, the fairytale siblings, survived incarceration in the candy house by burning the wicked witch alive — a grisly curtain-raiser that sets a low bar for what is to follow. Some time later Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) have become bounty hunters, travelling around Central Europe in search of witches to kill. They wind up in Augsburg — created on the soundstages of Berlin’s Babelsberg studios and looking for all the world like a tacky studio set from a cut-rate TV drama. In this small town, the mayor is supportive but the sheriff is not; it doesn’t matter much, because the latter, played by Swedish-born Peter Stormare, won’t be around for long. It seems that a coven of witches, led by Muriel (Famke Janssen playing most of her role under heavy make-up) is kidnapping children in preparation for some Satanic rite to take place in the near future, and our heroes are determined to stop it.
In their leather gear and clutching their absurdly over-sized weapons (some kind of crossbow for Gretel and a weird-looking automatic gun for her brother), the siblings set out on their mission. They’re joined during the course of the film by an odd collection of allies. Ben (Thomas Mann) is a fan-boy who turns up with a scrapbook containing clipping of all their exploits. Mina