Elles: Tale of Aging Women, Starring Carmen Maura, Marisa Berenson and Others

Wavering between cinema and sociology, genuine drama and schmaltzy soap, the international co-production Elles tackles the issue of aging among fortysomething women, who still suffer from the double-standard treatment that prevails in Western societies.

Starring five beautiful actresses, Spanish Carmen Maura, French Miou Miou and Guesch Patti, American Marisa Berenson, and German Marthe Keller, the film begins well, but then veers toward the kind of material one associates with soaps and sitcoms, cramming within its short time frame just about any problem about middle-aged femmes one can imagine.

Still, relevant subject matter and illustrious international cast might persuade a small distributor to release this female-themed meller in major American cities, with stronger prospects in European theatrical and ancillary markets.

The early sequences of Portuguese director Luis Galvaso Teles’ Elles promise to be more in the vein of Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown than that of On Golden Pond or other social problem melodramas about the implications of old age.

Linda (Carmen Maura), a successful TV journalist, is dating a handsome man, Gigi (Joaquim De Almeida), but she seems unable to commit. In a kind of role reversal, it’s Linda who kicks her lover out of her bed every night around 2 a.m. An accomplished literature professor, Eva (Miou Miou) is a desirable single woman, who suddenly finds herself attracted to her young student, who happens to be the son of her friend Barbara (Keller). Regal and proud, Barbara, who has a catering business, is in the midst of divorce proceedings from her husband who’s courting a woman half his age.

Chloe (Berenson), the owner of a beauty salon, has a job, which forces her to confront on a daily basis the reality of looking older. Rounding out the quintet is Branca (Patti), a passionate but self-destructive actress-singer, who becomes alienated from her adolescent daughter, when the latter observes her making love during rehearsal.

Though centering on women and filtering the stories through their distinctive perspective, helmer and co-scripter Teles doesn’t neglect the men. To his credit, all the characters–male and female–are appealing and physically attractive. Unlike Waiting to Exhale, in which the gloriously looking women were way above their male counterparts, in Elles, the femmes don’t make fools out of themselves by dating the “wrong” guys.

Unfortunately, Teles’s heavy-handed psychologism and middlebrow therapeutic sensibility are used like hot syrup on a delicious ice cream, loading the narrative with sufficient problems for a whole TV series. Indeed, in due course, each woman is asked to brave her “Problem” and deal with it in an emotionally satisfying and mature manner. Hence, Barbara is not only suffering from the acute effects of divorce, but has to face her own immortality, after being examined by her ex-husband-doctor. Similarly, troubled mom Branca is forced to blame herself for neglecting her drug-addicted daughter and to take an action to rectify her behavior.

One can almost see the film’s schematic blueprint, based on Tele’s desire to encompass all the possible dilemmas fortysomething women might encounter at this traumatically dreaded phase of their lives. The rationale behind the inclusion of a lesbian, who, as written and played by Berenson, comes across as a type, is probably based on the director’s wish to espouse liberal philosophy, but also derives from his belief that, demographically speaking, it makes sense that one out of five women be a lesbian.

It helps a great deal that, within these narrative limitations, all five actresses acquit themselves honorably, though each one has done better and more fulfilling work in previous films. Still, their sexy quintet makes the film much more appealing and enjoyable than it has any right to be.

Though shot in Lisbon, Elles could have taken place in any major European city (which is the point of the film). Ravishing beauty of the five actresses is accentuated by lenser Alfredo Mayo’s sensually erotic camera.