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The Boston Phoenix Flesh Wounds

Benoit Jacquot shows class in School

By Peter Keough

APRIL 19, 1999:  When a geezer like Clint Eastwood slaps one on a babe a third his age in True Crime, nobody blinks. What would happen if the genders were reversed nobody knows, because it never happens -- at least not in Hollywood movies. Only in what still passes as foreign film do remotely comparable situations arise, as in Benoît Jacquot's The School of Flesh (L'ecole de la chair); and at least in this movie's exploration of age, money, power, and class in sexual relationships, it's quite an education. But in comparison with other films in Jacquot's repertoire, which though cold are also moving, Flesh tends to be just cold.

Coldness, of course, is the forte of Isabelle Huppert, who is wistfully phlegmatic as Dominique, a flush but single and pushing-40 fashion executive cruising the clubs with her girlfriend (Danièle Dubroux -- a frayed Mioux-Mioux). Walking a bit on the wild side, they check out a place catering to alternative sexual orientations, and there Dominique's eyes lock with "Quentin" (Olivier Martinez's younger brother Vincent, and he looks it). Quizzing the transvestite bar manager, Chris (Vincent Lindon, who looks like a gay variation on Rod Stewart), she learns that Quentin is not his real name and that he's a hustler who does men and women, tends to be violent, and is interested only in money. He might be worth a try, Chris suggests, if only to play a little role reversal.

And so Dominque and Quentin do, repeatedly, and the back-and-forth of their games of power and submission, of ritual and intimacy, takes precedence over any passion. On their first date they agree that Dominique will choose where they eat and Quentin will determine the rest. After she scolds him for sniffing his sea bass at the hoity-toity bistro she takes him to, he drags her off to a video arcade and ignores her.

She storms off but returns to set up another liaison, where they end up in a hotel; Quentin stands naked before her, and she commands him not to move as her gaze takes him in. Before long, with a growing sense of inevitability but not of compulsion, she has paid off his debts, bought him new clothes, moved him into her apartment, and suffered impassively (a tear occasionally trickles down her cheek) for his absences, cruelties, deceit, and begrudged desire.

It sounds like a Douglas Sirk melodrama (the film is based on a purplish Yukio Mishima novel), but without the overinflated emotional pizzazz and kitsch. Or maybe a distaff Last Tango in Paris without the self-laceration, nihilist heat, and suffocating carnality. Instead, the style of this School is very much rote, the sex almost perfunctory. Huppert's face remains a mask beneath which melancholy and ardor are suggested but not revealed, and Martinez remains callow and unformed, dabbling in sadism and tenderness but never becoming more than a figment of either. When he acts impulsively, whether to kiss her or to pick a fight with a vendor in the bazaar when they travel to Morocco on holiday, it seems more obligatory than spontaneous.

What warmth Flesh offers comes from the subsidiary characters, those touched by the couple's folie-à-deux or left behind by it. Like Quentin's former sugar daddy, the rueful charity case lawyer Soukaz (François Berléand), whom Dominique presses for details about her love when his absences become intolerable. Soukaz's crushed soul tells more about the pathos of autumnal passion than any of Huppert's tics. But his suggestion that Dominique cut her losses goes unheeded, whereupon Quentin's nose for money takes him into the household of Dominique's client Madame Thorpe (a bracingly arch and crass Marthe Keller), her epicene husband, and her willful, spoiled, nubile daughter Marine (Roxane Mesquida).

With Flesh, Jacquot seems to be offering his third installment in the various stages of womanhood, following the young adult angst of A Single Girl and the married twentysomething blues of Seventh Heaven (as the ages increase, the period of time covered in each film seems to as well, beginning with the real-time scenario of the tour-de-force Girl). Like these two films, Flesh is acutely observed, almost clinical in its detachment as it confronts the ambiguities of women's desire and strength. In this case, though, the older woman gets a raw deal once again; the flesh may be willing, but the spirit is weak.

The elegant Isabelle

When I last conversed with Isabelle Huppert, back in 1980, she was the urbane Eurostar of Jean-Luc Godard's Every Man for Himself (Sauve qui peut (la vie)). As such, she was well traveled, perfectly at home in English, and articulate about distinguishing the methods and talents of her various directors -- Pialat, Chabrol, etc. -- in ways rare for actors.

This new conversation took place at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and focused on Huppert's satisfactory collaboration with Benoît Jacquot in The School of Flesh (L'école de la chair). In Jacquot's adaptation of the Yukio Mishima novel, she plays a financially secure Parisian who works for a Japanese clothes designer and falls deeply in love with a lower-class, probably bisexual gigolo. Now 40ish, Huppert is more elegant than ever, and immensely eloquent, but also, as with many of her sublime screen characters, a little cool.

Q:Describe working with Benoît Jacquot on The School of Flesh.

A: We're friendly. We'd already made a film together, The Wings of the Dove [Les ailes de la colombe, from 1981], and we'll probably make still another, No Scandal. His talent is to raise many questions and then not answer them, the way of all good filmmakers. For The School of Flesh, he wanted to be very close on my face, filming faces like landscapes, and I thought that was a very good idea. I can also be flat, like TV. But here, there's an architecture, ups and downs, shadings, sunsets, and sunrises. The idea of Caroline Champetier's cinematography was to show naked faces. You see the flesh through the skin.

Q: What's your opinion of the narrative?

A: This film has a sentimental story without being sentimental, the way I think films should be made. It's also what happens to this particular woman. She always keeps a certain distance. She's at school. Through passion and suffering, she learns about herself but without destroying herself.

The film manages to avoid all the clichés, even about why the couple can't live together. It's partly because Quentin is younger, and a gigolo. But the more you see the reasons, the less they are the real ones.

Q: What are the real reasons their romance can't survive?

A: I don't have the answer. Maybe they weren't supposed to end up together. Maybe he's an instrument for Dominique to find out more about herself. The film doesn't give answers: we see human beings making a little path together and learning things through their encounters. The relationship is really seen through Dominique's eyes. That's what I like about The School of Flesh, this change to a woman's POV. Even if she dresses like a man, she remains a woman, and it's she who learns how to live and how not to die.

Q: How does Dominique see Quentin?

A: You get a sense that there's real danger. He's a beam of light. But when she looks at him frontally, she gets blinded. She could die of it, and you sense a great despair, and yet she never gets trapped in her despair.

Q: She's like the man in that she pays the bills.

A: We ask, how could you love someone and pay him? But it's the way any man would do with a girl. She pays for the hotel room. She insists on paying. It's fair. He doesn't have any money. She says to him, "You can keep the leftover money." The one who pays has the control, the power.

Q: How did you investigate Dominique's life before the movie takes place?

A: I never do that, I don't need to have an explanation. The character exists only in the life of the camera. Your imagination has to be within the limits of the frame, which is the arbiter. I trust the director, so there's more past of my character in her clothes, her furniture, than in an endless story I can invent. Costumes concern me very much: this woman has beautiful clothes, and she always keeps her coat on. She doesn't really settle anywhere, she's more like a child than an adult. Maybe he becomes an adult quicker than she does.

Q: At the end of the movie, when they meet again, he has a child, but by someone else.

A: The child is the promise they never achieved together. There's also the child she was. There's regret, but something else. Before, when they were blind to each other, they didn't really see the differences between them. Now the differences become more obvious. They're so close, so far. It's like that. You love someone, you meet him years later, and it's like you never touched him before.

But there is flesh in this film. It's in the eyes and souls.

-- Gerald Peary

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