THE SCHOOL OF FLESH
Directed by Benoit Jacquot
Written by Jacques Fieschi, based on the novel by Yukio Mishima
With Isabelle Huppert, Vincent Martinez, Vincent Lindon and Marthe Keller
Distributed by Stratosphere Entertainment
Where would French writers and filmmakers be without l'amour fou? Andre Breton named a book after it, and Jacques Rivette a film. The Surrealist exaltation of mad love is reflected in the lyrical romanticism of Leos Carax's LES AMANTS DE PONT NEUF, a 1991 film finally slated for release in the U.S. this summer. But there's another, more distanced tradition in French film: the best late films of Truffaut - TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, THE STORY OF ADELE H., THE GREEN ROOM - take a detached, self-consciously literary approach to obsessive love, while Claude Sautet's UNE COEUR EN HIVER and NELLY AND MR. ARNAUD focus on seemingly repressed men who can approach their emotions only with great caution. THE SCHOOL OF FLESH was written by Jacques Fieschi, who also wrote the Sautet films, and it's also a film about emotion bound by rules and social constrictions. As such, it's a very French film. Whatever the reality, Americans generally prefer to see ourselves rebelling against these rules.
Fashion executive Dominique (Isabelle Huppert) meets the much younger Quentin (Vincent Martinez) through a chance encounter at a transvestite-run bar where the aspiring boxer and part-time hustler works. When he quits his job, she offers to take him in, pay for his expenses and find modeling work for him. Even though she's obviously far more enamored of him than he is of her, she can't let go of him even when she recognizes how badly he treats her. He refuses to tell her anything about his past, and she eventually discovers that Quentin isn't even his real name. During a stormy trip to Morocco, he meets a rich girl, and winds up leaving Dominique in order to woo and eventually propose marriage to her.
THE SCHOOL OF FLESH is at once a highly cerebral film and a very physical one. Jacquot's camera stays close to the actor's faces, clinging to them even in exteriors. (As a result, it's difficult to tell what city the film is set in.) He fills the screen with tight close-ups, and even his medium shots tend to use a shallow focus. D.P. Caroline Champetier favors a dark, blue-tinged palate, and the costume design accentuates this somber tone. (A trip to a Moroccan bazaar provides a rare burst of color and sunlight.) The actor's faces (Huppert's, in particular) are presented as objects for study; these faces, rather than the dialogue, carry the film's real weight.
Jacquot is clearly fascinated by the rules we live by, whether they be the rules of a job, a marriage or a more fleeting relationship. (J. Hoberman perceptively described the setting of THE DISENCHANTED as "a psychologically charged realm of fairy tale archetypes and childlike games," a description that also rings true for SEVENTH HEAVEN. The latter film even includes an imaginary character.) His characters struggle to carve out a place for themselves within these rules, even though they (and we) usually don't completely understand them. Most of these rules are determined by gender, class and sexuality, but there's always more to the story than these narrow, socially defined roles. Dominique is privileged enough to experience love and sex as occasions for rupture and transcendence, but for the desperate Quentin, they're simply a means to putting food on his table and a roof over his head. Their relationship offers him the chance of "leading a normal life": an entree into middle-class heterosexuality.
Mishima was a gay man, and it's easy to see how THE SCHOOL OF FLESH, essentially the story of a middle-aged "sugar daddy" attracted to a hustler who prefers women but will sleep with men for money, could be set in a gay milieu. Jacquot and Fieschi are quite consciously revising the female coming-of-age tales of A SINGLE GIRL and THE DISENCHANTED, and Dominique even comments on this role-reversal several times. The older woman/younger man love story is all too rare in American film, and while it's less rare in French film, THE SCHOOL OF FLESH, unlike films such as Catherine Breillat's PARFAIT AMOUR! and Brigitte Rouan's POST COITUM, allows its female protagonist her obsession and her dignity. Even under the most hostile circumstances (and the world of THE DISENCHANTED is a hostile one indeed), his female characters always remain dignified. (These films' feminist sympathies exist in an uneasy balance with Jacquot's tendency to ogle his actresses.) However, SEVENTH HEAVEN and THE SCHOOL OF FLESH suggest that the world is no less threatening to men, even if they start out from a more privileged position. As with Renoir, everyone has their reasons, and one of the strengths of THE SCHOOL OF FLESH is that Jacquot and Fieschi somehow make it possible to respect the points of view of both Dominique and Quentin: to respect them, not to fully understand them.
As the film closes, Dominique's passion remains somewhat mysterious, even to her. All the same, it existed, and it changed her life. THE SCHOOL OF FLESH doesn't pretend to speak about her passion from the inside; instead, Jacquot records its visible traces. This will undoubtedly lead some viewers to complain about its coldness - it's difficult to feel much direct emotional attachment to Dominique, much less Quentin - but this "coldness" opens up possibilities for an analysis of the way love can and cannot change people In the end, I'm enough of a romantic to prefer Carax, but I'd like to think there's plenty of room for both kinds of love stories.