Title: School of Flesh. Theme: Older woman, younger man. Place: France. Need we say more?
Actually, we do, because School of Flesh, directed by Benoit Jacquot and adapted from a Yukio Mishima novel, is hardly the carnal coming-of-age fantasy suggested by the title. It's about a mismatched couple arguing, and despite the woman being older (and whiter), the movie maintains the traditional power relationship—any viewer hoping to see a woman on top will be disappointed. With that said (and in spite of a few missteps), School of Flesh is a precise portrayal of a bad relationship, with excellent acting all around. Do go see it; but don't expect to come out smiling.
SCHOOL OF FLESH
directed by Benoit Jacquot
starring Isabelle Huppert, Vincent
opens April 9 at Harvard Exit
The film opens at a crowded nightclub, with a good-looking, forty- ish business woman, Dominique (Isabelle Huppert), being cruised by Quentin, a young dark rogue who's basically a gigolo moonlighting as a bartender. Dominique avoids Quentin's stares, but then Chris, a transvestite (Vincent Lindon, who looks like Barry Manilow in drag) steps in, speaking as if he were Quentin's pimp. Paying for sex can be fun, Chris tells the older woman. Let the affair begin!
From then on, things move fast—and not necessarily in the bedroom, though that's implied. What we actually see is the Older Woman, despite her money and social standing, sinking quickly in the relationship, starting from the very first date. Out for a walk, they end up at a video arcade, where Quentin, like any pubescent gamer, gets absorbed into a virtual world of car races, monsters, and spaceships, and ignores the pesky girlfriend who just wants to cuddle. Dominique walks out of the arcade, muttering, "Little prick," under her breath. Tears trickle regally down her cheek, and she tells herself, "I'm not going back there."
The scene is pretty much a model for the rest of the film. Quentin moves in with Dominique and continues to behave like an ass (and it is assumed that his poor manners are
due to his dubious origins—he's half- Moroccan, duh). Dominique, in her silent way, tries to rein him in and "civilize" him: "Wear a shirt while we're eating dinner," she instructs.
What is most puzzling is that for a hired boy-toy, Quentin isn't very placating. Once in a while, if he feels like it, they have sex. Jacquot doesn't give us the satisfaction of seeing Dominique have the upper hand, but it would be unjust to say that her submission is his idea of the female condition. Quentin's past lover was a real sugar daddy, an older man (Francois Berl顮d) who was as equally frustrated by Quentin as Dominique is.
If this were a Hollywood movie, Quentin and Dominique would probably learn how to love each other, and become a couple that defied mainstream assumptions. But this is a French film, where people turn on the lights before having sex, and where neither principal character changes much by the end of the story—though at times, they are well aware of the lessons.
School of Flesh isn't necessarily a cruel portrayal; just an honest look at the cruel train of lust. The movie is disturbing not simply because of the absurd inequity in Dominique and Quentin's relationship, but because it captures the very absurdity of being caught in a relationship that defies all elements of better judgment. As their affair progressed like a bad addiction for Dominique, I kept hoping that she wouldn't let herself be pushed any farther—but I knew all too well that she would.