Film Friday: Smashed and Elles

A couple struggles with alcoholism in American indie Smashed, and Juliette Binoche mind-melds with young sex workers in French drama Elles. If you’re looking to feel bad about sex and booze, this weekend’s arthouse lineup is for you.


Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a primary school teacher with a serious drinking problem. Puking in the middle of class, then waking up in an alley after a crack binge the next morning, gives her a slight indication that she may have gone beyond a casual habit, but her music journalist husband (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) seems content to keep going with their hard-partying lifestyle.

Nonetheless, she joins AA and makes an effort to go straight. It’s not only the difficulty of staying clean she has to deal with, but the judgement of her still-drunk family and the intimidating culture of AA, including the dreaded “13th step” of hardened veterans hitting on vulnerable newcomers (depicted here with excruciating awkwardness).

The dangers of addicts-going-clean films are inherent: copious opportunities for Pacino-esque actorly grandstanding, after-school-special-esque moralizing and the simple fact that once a character goes clean, it’s only a matter of time, dramatically speaking, before the inevitable relapse. Smashed generally avoids these pitfalls, if barely. More problematic is a plot point — Winstead tries to explain the in-class barfing by pretending to be pregnant, which her pitiful, infertile principal (usually awesome TV comic Megan Mullally) takes to heart — drawn out to sitcom-worthy lengths of embarrassment.

But the film has a simple but appealing visual style, and is helped immensely by the two leads’ performances. Breaking Bad geeks know that Paul is a great actor, but you can’t help but see a lot of that show’s Jesse in this role (though hardcore fans know he’s capable of a much greater range). There isn’t much in Winstead’s resume to indicate promise (Final Destination 3 and the last couple of Die Hard films are among her recent work), but her performance here is sympathetic, compelling and just unorthodox enough to upend the story’s potential clichés.



The great Juliette Binoche plays a journalist writing about the lives of young prostitutes in this French drama from Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska. (The head credits begin with an epic list of international co-producers, illustrating the reality for European arthouse filmmakers today).

Binoche’s subjects are not down-and-out streetwalkers, but young students who support themselves with sex work, act quite nonchalant about this work and even claim to enjoy it, a shock to Binoche’s bourgeois and old-school-feminist ears. As she struggles to complete her article while fielding the domestic demands of her inattentive husband and two bratty sons, she starts to have a bit of a breakdown.

As befits a movie about prostitution, there are a number of sex scenes, but with a few exceptions, they’re (no doubt realistically) more creepy and/or sad than erotic. Binoche is always great onscreen, but here she pushes herself to uncomfortable places, whether it’s masturbating on the bathroom floor and then crying, or riotously laughing with an open mouth full of half-chewed spaghetti.

Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t rise to its star’s level. It’s one of those Euro-art films where at a certain point you start wondering: OK, is this barely-there narrative an artistic concept, or just a half-assed effort? Ultimately, it’s worth seeing for Binoche completists or people who like to see nasty sex scenes in a socially acceptable setting, but that’s about it. ■


Smashed and Elles open Nov. 2

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