Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The School of Flesh

By Steve Davis

MAY 24, 1999: 

D: Benoit Jacquot; with Isabelle Huppert, Vincent Martinez, Vincent Lindon, Marthe Keller, François Berleand. (R, 101 min.)

The School of Flesh is a provocative film, but not in the way its title suggests; the nakedness depicted here is more one of emotion than bare skin. Based on a Yukio Mishima novel transposed to present-day Paris, this French film is most fascinating when it is a two-character study of polar opposites who are both attracted and repelled by each other, like human magnets. Dominique is a successful, mature, trés bourgeois businesswoman who wears pearls; Quentin is a struggling, young man of the streets who hustles. When she buys his sexual favors for a one-night stand, a relationship develops in which the only law is one of desire. The candle burns brightly and furiously as Dominique and Quentin engage in their psychological mind games -- it's never clear who's zooming whom. But when other characters begin to intrude upon the relationship, the film gets a little freaky and, finally, pedestrian. It's as if Last Tango in Paris morphed into The Way We Were. The School of Flesh is fascinating when depicting complicated people who mutually manipulate and hurt each other for different purposes; you never really know what to think of them. Veteran actress Huppert has made a career of portraying women who aren't exactly sympathetic (Madame Bovary, Violette), but her Dominique is a woman for whom we feel a certain compassion, even when she's acting in the most irrational, self-destructive manner possible. As the film's object of desire, newcomer Martinez imbues Quentin with equal measures of self-assured man and bruised boy. In these actors' capable hands, the contradictions in the lovers' entanglement seem to make twisted sense. Although The School of Flesh doesn't quite live up to its promise, it nevertheless dares to provoke rather than titillate in its delineation of love's strange ways. As the French might say, "L'amour, l'amour, toujours l'amour."
3.0 stars

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