Friday, August 26, 2011

Getting Needs Met for a Price in 'Special Treatment'

Alice (Isabelle Huppert) wants to make a career change in "Special Treatment." Photo by Patrick Muller.

ENNUI is a terrible affliction. It has the power to drive human beings to do all manner of daffy, dangerous and destructive things.

In “Special Treatment,” the first film from French director Jeanne Labrune in six years, she brings attention to the parallels of two seemingly different professions. It is ennui that is the cause of depression and listlessness in call girl Alice (Isabelle Huppert) and psychoanalyst Xavier (Bouli Lanners). The film opens today in New York at Cinema Village ( and on 16 Sept. in Los Angeles at Laemmle Sunset 5 (

The argument can also be made that the two Parisians in “Special Treatment” are ill-suited to their chosen métier. Further, they are both in their 40s and simply may be experiencing a midlife crisis. This is especially the case for Alice. (See trailer at:

IH’s Alice as the main protagonist goes about her work as if on autopilot. She sets up for her role as a schoolgirl, including plaid skirt, white shirt and over-the-knee socks and for her role as a dominatrix (collars, chain, dog food container, raw meat, etc.) with the insouciance of one watering the plants. A consummate professional, she does not sh_ _ where she sleeps, so to speak. She has a separate apartment for her work. When the schoolgirl-loving john (Jean-François Wolff seems to be suffering from ennui himself, Alice casually offers to recommend him to one of her colleagues.

Alice (Isabelle Huppert) and Xavier (Bouli Lanners) have a common complaint in "Special Treatment." Photo by Virginie Saint Martin.

Where Alice is indifferent, Xavier is contemptuous. Is his bad marriage responsible for his behavior? At around 60 euros for 15 minutes or whatever the good going rate is for sessions, one would think Xavier would bother to offer a harrumph by way of a response to the clients reclined on his sofa. They prattle on desultorily; they ask and answer their own questions. Xavier just sits mutely – obstinately – until their time is up at which point he gladly shows them door.

JL’s inspiration for “Special Treatment” was a chance-reading of a book that touched on a word in psychoanalysis that she noted has a different meaning in prostitution. Thus was born an idea that she and co-screenwriter Richard Debuisne have fashioned into a smart, sophisticated screenplay. Strong women tend to figure prominently in JL’s work. It is inconceivable that a male director would pluck an actress in her late 50s to play such a character. Alice is both likable and empathetic, not sympathetic.

The immensely talented IH – who in this role brings to mind both Susan Sarandon and Lauren Hutton – is one of the very few actresses on earth who can credibly evoke Alice’s allure, beauty, confidence, intelligence and vulnerability. Wisely, JL knows that the implication is sufficient, precluding the need to show Alice in the act. Though she is a 43-year-old prostitute, Alice is utterly desirable. A man 28 and one 58 (IH’s actual age) would be drawn to her. She shows no physical manifestations of the ravages of her profession. And never is she a tragic, pitiful or pitiable figure.

A special-needs client (Jean-François Wolff) gets a little comfort from Alice (Isabelle Huppert) in "Special Treatment." Photo by Patrick Muller.

Alice has a steely determination to recapture herself. She doesn’t slink away when she believes someone is looking down on her because of her chosen profession. She and Xavier meet through a mutual acquaintance and it looks as if they may reach an accommodation. It does not work but they help each other in a far more meaningful way.

“Special Treatment” is billed as an erotic drama more likely because this is familiar territory for JL whose milieu is the cult of darkness. However, as she asserts in the production notes, lately she has moved a few steps away from the darkness. Whenever the subject is prostitution – and psychoanalysis to a lesser extent (body intercourse/mind intercourse) – invariably the images of darkness and erotica are evoked. Yet in “Special Treatment,” JL draws on the inner lives of her characters to produce a significant amount of light and laughter.

Xavier’s excessive hand-washing is almost a running joke. A hidden side of the taciturn psychoanalyst is revealed in his simply attending an auction. Alice, early in the film, is antiquing with one of her colleagues/friends, Juliette (Sabila Moussadek). She seems every bit a member of the bourgeoisie with a flat in Paris’ 16th arrondisement. Later, she informs Juliette that a new client (Xavier) is a coveted chandelier – meaning that he will be the means to purchasing it. One of the lightest and most illuminating moments in the film is when Alice explains in great detail her rate structure to a befuddled Xavier.

Alice (Isabelle Huppert) in the guise of the dominatrix in "Special Treatment." Photo by Patrick Muller.

FYI, the setting up of props is charged to the client. Also note that clients must book Alice in 10-block sessions and do not receive a refund if they cancel or wish to end their visits before they have exceeded their 10 sessions. On the otherhand, if Alice wishes to cancel or end the visits, she will refund the cost of unused sessions only. Light and illuminating.

JL uses “Special Treatment” to do what she says she has done in all of her films: “tell a story about overcoming something.” It is a clever, engaging, witty film that presents two people dealing with an ailment of the human condition and overcoming it in a way that is well-suited to their respective situations.

“Special Treatment” has no rating. It is shown in French with English subtitles.

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