L'Ecole de la chair

(The School of Flesh, France/LU/BE - 1998)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Vincent Martinez, Vincent Lindon, Marthe Keller, Danielle Dubroux, Roxanne Mesquida
Genre: Drama/Romance
Director: Benoit Jacquot
Screenplay: Jacques Fieschi from Yukio Mishima's novel
Cinematography: Caroline Champetier
Composer: -
Runtime: 110 minutes

One reason current mainstream films are unwatchable is the director and screenwriter have become more akin to lawyers. At their most honest, their job is convincing the audience of the basic concepts they’ve contrived for their fictitious characters; they are really in love or in danger, are justified in seeking vengeance, and so on. At their most dishonest, their job is to convince you to buy into the lifestyle they are selling, to grease the pockets of the corporations who are using the product to advertise their services. You don't learn anything about yourself, or life in general, from these sales pitches, as there's no gray area to consider. Benoit Jacquot isn’t out to sell you on his story, but rather to act as your eyes. Through the observant eye of his camera the audience is allowed to draw their own conclusions. If you are ultimately unconvinced the characters are in love, ruling them shallow and selfish, so be it. No one will be put to death as a result of your verdict.

At least for me, the primary quality of Jacquot’s work from The Disenchanted to A Single Girl to A tout de suite is his conscious decision to stick to observing the characters, particularly the female lead, in a restrained manner rather than giving in to the commercial notion the audience needs to be told what they could just as easily guess. In fact, Jacquot rarely tells us anything we could assume. The characters in The School of Flesh don’t talk about the past because it’s painful and failure ridden. We get a detail here and there, enough to allow us to draw the reasonable conclusion, but in any case it’s largely irrelevant. I believe it’s left them emotionally guarded to the point they’re unwilling if not incapable of intimacy, but the reasons aren’t the important part, the result is.

The major mistake an American audience is prone to make with The School of Flesh is assuming age is the primary schism in the relationship between Dominique (Isabelle Huppert) and Quentin (Vincent Martinez). The fact that the cross-generational nature of the romance isn’t emphasized could be a hint, but especially when the woman is the one that’s 15 or 20 years older we are expecting her to struggle through a lot of phony obstacles to magically recapture her groove. Even though we know these relationships are more acceptable in the less sexually repressed countries of Europe, seeing a film such as Heading South can make us assume the older woman knows she’ll have to pay for tender young flesh. In this case, we could suppose she simply doesn’t have to travel to the third world to find someone poor enough. But money - more specifically social class – is the real issue.

Dominique isn’t satisfied by men who are her equals; the sex isn’t the issue but rather the idea that they have a career and thus a life of their own. Dominique thinks she wants someone to spend every minute with, a man she can possess. Being a poor, fatherless, hustler with a shady past and a questionable future, the bisexual hooker seems as good a candidate as any. We could argue whether it’s this initial miscalculation of what Quentin would be willing to accept, or the one-sided nature of confused Dominique’s faulty premise, but in any case Quentin has no interest in being permanently bought and more importantly is at least attracted to Dominique. She does a good thing rescuing him from his debts, but its difficult for a relationship that starts out based on money to transcend those boundaries.

Quentin is a young man who is used to being manhandled. He says he’ll decide everything about their first date beyond the specifics of dinner, but that’s his defense mechanism. He hopes if he exerts himself right off the bat he’ll keep from getting pushed around, but the battle of wills almost immediately ensues as Quentin bores Dominique playing video games, refusing to leave and do something else. As Quentin is prone to eventually do, despite his protests he gives in to taking her money, wounding his own pride by making him something she’s purchased.

Though The School of Flesh seems a very French story, it was actually written by Yukio Mishima. Mishima seems to believe a certain amount of sadism and especially masochism is an intrinsic part of human nature. Dominique’s passion is equally hatred, not only for Quentin, but more so for her own inability to get what she wants from a relationship. In their tireless quest for power, humans are prone to acting against their own long-term best interest. In Dominique’s case, she wears everyone out. Unable to express love beyond sex, they engage in an oft-hurtful chess match for control, always striving to stretch the outer limits of the relationship. Dominique isn’t as much a victim as she comes off as, nor is Quentin as unfeeling, it’s the roles they’ve set each other, or themselves, up in. It’s the trying manner in which they express their love.

Dominique and Quentin are unable to communicate because they are too alike in one crucial area; they’ve been wounded, and can’t see the good in reopening the scar tissue. Dominique is curious about Quentin, but his refusal to provide any information not only bores her, but peaks her interest to the point she follows him around as if she’s hired herself to be a private detective. Part of the reason she’s so free with her money is she believes she learns something about another person by giving it to them.

Quentin puts up a macho front, in part because he’s not good at small talk and figures if he doesn’t ask any questions he won’t have to answer any either. More importantly, his boxing and bad boy tactics are attempts to mask his vulnerability. Whether it’s a conventional battle or one of wills, he knows he won’t come out on top. He’s petrified of being dumped, so he’ll always give in and if it comes to that try to make up. However, as they’ve become entrenched in their war, the more Dominique refuses to dump him, the farther Quentin pushes for freedom within the relationship, which in his defense doesn’t work in her version of being together constantly because they don’t have anything in common beyond needs and urges.

Dominique still desires Quentin, but in a more melancholic manner as time passes because she realizes he’ll never fully satisfy her, yet she can’t replace what she gets from him sexually, not to mention the fact that other than “Dominique's Friend” (Daniele Dubroux) she doesn’t have anyone else that’ll tag along. As a fashion executive she’s decisive, her primary skill being her ability to work a crowd, mingle with everyone for a few minutes. But work is impersonal to her, the clients generally uninteresting. Deciding whether a dress is worth someone else’s money can be done with cold, calculating precision because it’s of no real consequence, and more importantly doesn’t entail a loss for her. Long after failure is imminent, Dominique continues to grapple with herself, and Quentin, if for no other reason than ending the battle won’t bring happiness.

Quentin is more capable of change, perhaps because he’s younger or because he’s never had anything. All of his acts, including continuing to service male clients, are part of his game to maintain freedom by avoiding commitment to Dominique. He doesn’t expect or really even want any of these fancies or flings to last, it’s all to show his lover what he’s capable of, that he’ll find fleeting entertainment elsewhere because he can. He even agrees to marry Marine (Roxane Mesquida), the beautiful but even more immature rich teenage daughter of Dominique’s coworker Madame Thorpe (Marthe Keller), figuring it’s the ultimate way to keep Dominique, who he’ll of course continue to see, from holding him captive and smothering him.

Isabelle Huppert’s performance is even more marvelous than usual. It’s hard to imagine the film working in the same form with another actress, as no one can match her ability to shift feelings and emotions while not only withholding all verbal explanations, but practically even displays. Her subtlety is such that she can seem to think out loud while in actuality not only barely even uttering a word, but even twitching a muscle. Though he might come off as poorly as his pretty boy older brother Olivier if he was working for a commercial director who forced him to state or display everything, Vincent Martinez holds up pretty well to Jacquot’s style of eventual revelation through distanced observation.


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