Sex sells in the movies, but art cinema is the special domain of bad sex. This week brings two major passion-killers – though one of them, for all its ostensible seriousness, definitely has a dash of titillation in the old Euro-erotica manner. The heroine gets titillated, for sure, almost farcically – all the more so because Elles strives so humourlessly to be tasteful and sociological.
Malgorzata Szumowska's film stars Juliette Binoche as Anne, a Parisian journalist writing a magazine exposé on students who work as prostitutes. Her subjects are Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), who cheerfully combines her secret life with a stable relationship; and Polish student Alicja (Joanna Kulig), who goes on the game to solve her rent problems, and soon runs a flourishing service involving intimate dinners, swanky hotels and a shiny designer dildo.
Meanwhile, Anne struggles to balance writing with life as a wife and mother – managing two spectacularly stroppy sons and a husband who has his supercilious shrug down to a fine art. Perhaps you can see where Szumowska is going with this – the lot of the bourgeois married woman is already akin to prostitution. Bon, ça va, point taken – but it's made with precious little subtlety, partly because of Binoche's abrasive performance. Her Anne is in a right fluster throughout, whether agonising over her article or trying to shut a fridge door. I'm not sure about her as a hack, either: she only interviews two women, gets hot under the collar as soon as Alicja pours the vodka, and spends the next day masturbating on the bathroom floor. OK, deadline pressure affects us all in strange ways, but still.
Meanwhile, the two hookers seem to have a fairly easy time, apart from Charlotte's encounter with one brutish client. Otherwise, their punters are largely presentable and wear beautifully laundered shirts (except one, who likes to strum "Autumn Leaves" in the nude). The kind of film in which sex is likely to take place to Beethoven's Seventh, this is ponderous, glossy stuff – prostitution in the tradition of "Belle de Jour" (the blogger, not the Buñuel film). The best reason to see Elles is the supporting duo: Kulig as feisty, flirty Alicja, and Demoustier, one of French film's liveliest new talents. There's also a guilty pleasure near the end: a dinner party that made me splutter with disbelief. Suffice to say, you may not listen to "Autumn Leaves" again in a hurry.
Here's another way to do bad sex: with ambivalence, austerity and hard-edged psychological insight. In Oliver Hermanus's South African drama Beauty, Deon Lotz plays François, a middle-aged white timber merchant who nurses a secret desire. The object of his passion is Christian (Charlie Keegan), a young lawyer who is the son of his friends, and who still calls him Uncle François. Married – if not lovelessly, at any rate joylessly – François lives a closeted life, perfectly playing the racist, homophobic Afrikaner male, but surreptitiously sneaking off to a farm where other short-sleeved burly blokes stand around nervously chugging beer. Having established their rule of "No faggots, no coloured", they repair to the living room for an orgy, in a scene that (not least because of its flesh-slapping sound effects) may be off-putting even to those with a penchant for bears, or Boers.
Little wonder that François yearns for the charming, well-hewn Christian – but so, apparently, does his daughter. Given François' immense repression, it's a cert that things will boil over dramatically – which they do after a stretch in which his emotional state is sketched out in some tense, largely wordless sequences.
This mesmerising drama derives its power from Hermanus's extremely confident, controlled direction – he's brilliant at mundane encounters in oppressive everyday interiors – and from the menacing heft and borderline opacity of Lotz's formidable lead. Beauty is an unvarnished study of the turbulence of the middle-aged male psyche, but it also addresses the current Afrikaner condition. A glimpse of headlines announcing political change in South Africa suggests that, in men like François, the apartheid mindset endures and that, on a deep psychological level, they're in every way its prisoners.
Doleful Finn Aki Kaurismaki musters some cheer for Le Havre, a French- set comedy-cum-melodrama that's his most feelgood (and political) film to date. Elsewhere, the gore flows, in the most ironic way, as five friends head off to the country in Drew Goddard's mischievous horror shlockbuster The Cabin in the Woods. Stars Kristen Connolly and Chris Hemsworth.