The love affair at the heart of Benoit Jacquot's The School of Flesh has to be the longest shot on the board. Pairing a woman of the world with a boy of the streets, it is fueled by sexual obsession and casual cruelty, by the same huge contrasts in temperament and experience that will inevitably destroy it. But while it lasts, the affair is a fascinating high-wire act, full of daring, folly and, occasionally, great tenderness. It's at once a beautiful and terrible thing to watch.
Dominique, played by the timeless French star Isabelle Huppert, is a sophisticated fashion executive with her career and life seemingly in order. But the moment she locks eyes with Quentin (newcomer Vincent Martinez), a self-absorbed street hustler and part-time boxer who scrapes by selling his body to the highest bidder--male or female--something unravels in her. Quentin's raw carnality plays havoc with Dominique's sense of reason, if not her unflappable cool. She stirs something in him, too--not only lust, but a sense of material and spiritual possibility that he's never felt before. She's not just lover, but mentor. Soon they slip into an enthralling and dangerous symbiosis--the ever-appraising sugar mommy and the sullen, beautiful boy toy.
In a French movie of an earlier era (or, for that matter, an American one), the roles and genders would be reversed, of course. But director Jacquot, who distinguished himself in A Single Girl and Seventh Heaven with his insights into the feminine mystique, doesn't hesitate to explore new territory.
He's got some powerful allies along for the ride. The able veteran Jacques Fieschi (Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud) is the screenwriter, and his source is the legendary Japanese novelist (and famous suicide) Yukio Mishima. Mishima's book is set in post-war Japan, and transplanting it to present-day Paris must have been a daunting task. But the filmmakers have retained its essence beautifully. Mishima's great subject, he once revealed in an autobiographical essay, is the tension between mind and body that he believed lay at the core of modern civilization's ills. That tension is everywhere evident in Flesh, particularly in Dominique, a woman of intellect who finds herself inexorably drawn to a young man whose only asset, only survival tool, has always been his body.
For Huppert, who in her prodigious career has portrayed everyone from the simple country heroine of The Lacemaker to the father-killer of Violette to Madame Bovary, this is another opportunity to delve deep into the mysteries of life, and she doesn't disappoint. Every gesture--from the way Domi-nique holds Quentin's face in her hands to the barely concealed rage in her step--transmits character. For the simmering, mercurial Martinez, who is making his film debut, Flesh is an opportunity to learn from the best, and he's made the most of it. Defiant but vulnerable, his Quentin is a memorable man-child and an embodiment of symptoms common to the day.
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What Jacquot observes most carefully here are the sacrifices, large and small, that his lovers must make to maintain a kind of equilibrium and the little bargains and betrayals they enact trying to bridge the unbridgeable gulfs between them. Quentin may be the younger member of the couple, but both are students in The School of Flesh. Their education is less sentimental than searing, charged with friction, cloaked in doom. By the end, when the opposites that first attracted begin to repel and Dominique finds herself burning incriminating photos of the lover she will now reject, they've both been through the mill. We learn a few things, too, or have at least been reminded of things we know. For instance: Despite our best efforts, mind and body seek to be separate provinces, and wherever passion and knowingness violently collide, it's never easy to pick up the pieces.
Too little known in the United States, Benoit Jacquot, in the company of a sublimely talented pair of actors, has explored these issues with fluency and verve, transforming Yukio Mishima's old obsession into a new vision for our time.
The School of Flesh.
Directed by Benoit Jacquot. Screenplay by Jacques Fieschi, from a novel by Yukio Mishima. Starring Isabelle Huppert and Vincent Martinez.