Elles About

Interview with Malgoska Szumowska & Tine Byrckel

Tine, how did you come up with the idea for the film?

Byrckel: The original idea came from the producer, Marianne Slot, who I’ve been working with for a long time. The media regularly talk about these young women who prostitute themselves to be able to finish their studies. This social phenomenon intrigued her. What did it mean to these young women? What did it say about society? Is prostitution the ultimate act of liberation for a woman, or is it an intolerable act of submission? We wanted to ask these questions without making any judgments, which cinema allows you to do better than any other medium.

How did you end up writing the screenplay with Malgoska?

Byrckel: Marianne and I were familiar with Malgoska’s work and had been completely captivated by a rough cut of her film 33 Scenes from Life. She has a unique ability to film the universe in all its tiny details. That’s how the film had to made in order to avoid any moralizing; we wanted to bring into play each protagonist’s responsibilities and desires.

How did your writing process work?

Byrckel: Before meeting Malgoska, I had spent time working on the story, bringing together a female journalist and several girls. There was also a structural reference to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, about a day in the life of a woman who is thinking about the dinner she has to prepare later. The questioning comes from the everyday gestures and dialogue rather than being expressed through great parables. Then, with Malogska in Warsaw, we came up with about a hundred scenes, which I used to write the first versions of the screenplay.

Did you do any investigation into prostitution?

Byrckel: We only conducted research in the field after writing the first versions of the screenplay. In France, we asked the excellent documentary filmmaker Hélène de Crécy to go out and interview girls. She was so fascinated by their stories that she made a documentary, Escort, which was also produced by Marianne Slot.

Szumowska: Before the start of the shoot, I wanted to meet some young female prostitutes. In Poland, I knew from reading the papers that many young female students are forced to sleep with the owners of the rooms they live in. The account of one young girl who was both beautiful and elegant made a great impression on me. From the start of the interview, she only talked about sex, what she did and what she liked to do.

Did you get answers you weren’t expecting?

Szumowska: To be honest, I was shocked. Shocked by the fact that a girl this pretty and intelligent derived pleasure from sleeping with men for money. And it wasn’t only to meet vital needs such as food and accommodation, but also for pleasure and to have a more pleasant life. In fact, it was very different from the fantasy that most people have of prostitution.

Byrckel: We met young women who were far more proud and casual than we’d imagined. It was worlds apart from the accounts that are peddled by the media, attention-grabbing stories of young women who have been abused. We didn’t want to talk about trafficking or pimps or drugs. We wanted to talk about young women who choose to prostitute themselves, with an avowed goal of climbing the social ladder. It’s far more disturbing. There’s the issue of women as sex objects, but there’s more to it than that. On the one hand, there are men who mistake these sex acts for love. And on the other hand, women who ask for…objects! The young women we met want it all and they want it right away. They are caught in a sort of material fever.

Szumowska: Another surprise was meeting a girl who was barely 20 years old and who knew more about sex than many women in their late thirties. We started to realize that the film couldn’t just be about the social aspects. We had to talk about intimacy.

The film draws a parallel between the work of the journalist, a woman who has a well-established position in society, and that of female students who prostitute themselves.

Szumowska: Absolutely. We do all kinds of things for money. Juliette’s character accepts a lot of compromises. In addition to her work, she spends the day preparing a meal for her husband’s boss, and she doesn’t mention her frustrations or her opinions to him. As a director, I sometimes have to do things I find unpleasant. Why is sex so different?

Byrckel: Juliette’s character has difficulties keeping her distance and makes viewers aware of their own voyeuristic pleasure. We can’t keep our politically correct conscience completely intact.

When did you think of Juliette for the lead role?

Szumowska: I thought of Juliette right away. Her acting in Caché had impressed me so much that I couldn’t imagine any other actress for Elles. We sent her the script and as soon as we met, I knew it would work. The subject matter interested her and we shared the same approach to things. Once she said yes, she was totally committed to the film. She trusted me and always supported me, even in my moments of doubt. It was an exceptional encounter. Juliette helped me to become the director of this film.

What about Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig?

Szumowska: We were looking for young actresses who had the energy and liveliness I had at their age. I’d seen Anaïs in Juliette Garcias’ Sois Sage, and I was convinced by her strength and talent. As for Joanna, I recognized myself in her. Passionate, talkative, and exuberant. She wanted to be in the film so badly that she lied to me when I asked her if she could speak French. When I realized it wasn’t true, I thought she was very sassy. And in the end, in the film, she does speak French!

Did your work with the actresses influence the film?

Szumowska: It was far more than an influence. In a way, I'd say they carry the film. After each day's shooting, depending on what had been done and said, I modified the scenes we were due to shoot the next day. The actresses gave me new ideas and I arrived each morning with changes stemming from their work. I'd say that Elles is a feminine entity, influenced by all the women who worked together on the project.

Once the shoot was over, was the editing a decisive stage?

Szumowska: Editing is a crucial stage in my films. I made a lot of documentaries before moving on to fiction, and I kept the habit of giving great importance to the editing in the creative process. What matters to me is the accuracy in the tiny emotions conveyed by spontaneous gestures. What I'm trying to get across is, above all, the intimacy.