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Dominating Dominique

[whitespace] The School of Flesh
Wistful Thinking: Isabelle Huppert and Vincent Martinez size each other up in Benoît Jacquot's 'The School of Flesh.'

Isabelle Huppert brings depth to a Pygmalion-like story of young hustler and older woman

By Michelle Goldberg

ALTERNATING currents of carnality and tenderness run through the remarkable new French film The School of Flesh, a story about the relationship between a successful middle-aged woman and a gorgeous young hustler. With an incisive script and a deeply compelling, layered performance from Isabelle Huppert, director Benoît Jacquot deftly sidesteps the clichés inherent in the premise, creating a candid, compassionate film about the tension between the power of class and the power of youth and the play between manipulation and affection. The School of Flesh begins with Dominique (Huppert), an elegant, mature fashion designer, stumbling into a hip gay bar with a blowsy girlfriend, where she catches the eye of the sultry, beautiful bartender, Quentin (Vincent Martinez). Noticing their mutual interest, a drag queen who works in the club tells her that the boy is available for a price. Dominique balks--she's still desirable and not at all desperate--but she's taken with him and a bit titillated by the novel idea of buying sex. Soon, they've made a date, and Dominique eventually installs Quentin in her luxurious apartment, taking him to fancy restaurants, outfitting him in a good suit, even offering to support his mother and brother.

Whether the reasons are cultural or universal, Pygmalion stories take on a sordid cast when the traditional roles are reversed, but Jacquot does a marvelous job of balancing the tawdriness with delicacy and sympathy. Huppert's dignified sensuality keep her from seeming too degraded by her transactions with Quentin--in the beginning, at least, it's Quentin who trails Dominique like a lost puppy. On their first night together, he even refuses to take her money. Their passion is as real as their loneliness, but the disparities in their sexual and financial worth give their affair a shameful charge and an erotic kind of cruelty. Though she begins by taking him to expensive restaurants, he demands that she cook for him, and her food is inedibly charred. "Do you have kids?" he asks, then says before she can answer, "No, or you wouldn't be here."

At the same time, Dominique obviously enjoys those moments when Quentin becomes dominant; beside him, the men her own age seem soft and insipid. When Dominique beds a contemporary, he takes off his glasses and his point-of-view shot is blurry, a visual joke that underscores his sexual inferiority. As a tale of an undersexed, childless career woman, The School of Flesh could easily have seemed hopelessly misogynist. Much of the reason it doesn't is Huppert, who portrays Dominique as hungry and vulnerable without making her seem pathetic. The film is resonant as a meditation on women's sexual fulfillment and on the ways eroticism is bound up with class and control. At the same time, the drama is about very real characters, not diffuse intellectual issues, and on one level The School of Flesh is simply the story of an impossible love affair. It's about a relationship, not a type of relationship, and everything in the movie works against our snide assumptions.

The School of Flesh (R; 110 minutes), directed by Benoît Jacquot, written by Jacques Fieschi, photographed by Caroline Champetier and starring Isabelle Huppert and Vincent Martinez.

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From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro.

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