Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Benoît Jacquot | L'École de la chair (The School of Flesh)

temporary abnormalities

by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Fieschi (screenplay, based on a fiction by Yukio Mishima), Benoît Jacquot (director) L'École de la chair (The School of Flesh) / 1998

Although French filmmaker Benoît Jacquot is well known for his several films centered upon the feminine personality within the context of the LGBTQ community, his 1998 work, L'École de la chair (The School of Flesh) might easily be overlooked as a gay film, despite the fact that one of the two central figures, Quentin (Vincent Martinez) is described as being bisexual, and he is surrounded by several gay figures, in particular Chris (Vincent Lindon), the manager of the bar in which Quentin works, and the several gay men—whom we never meet—who inhabit that bar. 

      Like many young male hustlers, Quentin perceives himself, it appears, as mostly heterosexual, engaging in sex with males such as the elderly Soukaz (François Berléand) only to make good money. Besides for a young half-Berber man, despite his beauty, in 1990s Paris jobs are not easy to come by.

      The film, moreover, focuses almost entirely upon a heterosexual woman, Dominique (the always fascinating Isabelle Huppert), who one might almost describe as an unintentional, unthinking homophobe. She resists even entering the “gay” bar which her nameless female friend (Danièle Dubroux) one night encourages that they check out. And later, when she returns to the same bar on a quieter evening, she describes the atmosphere to the bartender as almost “normal.”

Later, after Dominque comes to know Chris better, she asks him outright, “When did you become one of the girls”—a rather odd question, although Chris later describes himself as being a “girl,” put to a man who is simply effeminate, not a drag queen nor an individual transitioning. For Chris the term is simply a statement of his effeminate manners, but we sense for Dominique it is a sort of judgment.

     Indeed, Dominique is full of judgments, which are, in part, the crux of this film. Once she enters the “strange” world in which, perhaps for one of the first times in her life, she is somewhat out of her league, she is swept away, quite literally, by that handsome bartender Quentin, the two of them exchanging languorous glances the first time they encounter each other which quickly progresses to a relationship that almost resembles that of a wealthy female and her gigolo. Indeed, the Italians—Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Pier Paolo Pasolini—might each have had much  for fun with this tale. And Panamanian-born director José Quintero, a gay man, did seemingly enjoy himself with a campy version of this film’s themes in Tennessee Williams’ The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961).

      For Jacquot, however, everything is far more ponderous, for even entering upon such a relationship, Dominique barges in—forceful, intelligent, and quite successful businesswoman that she is—without quite knowing her role. Chris, also clearly in love with Quentin, attempts to fill her in with some of the attractive and more seedy details of the boy’s life, both encouraging her to take him under her wing and honestly warning her about the dangers of attempting to do so. But at the same time one might almost describe Chris as a pimp in this relationship, especially since he latter approaches Dominique for money to pay off Quentin's "debts."

      For Dominique, however, who is quickly obsessed by the boy, there is no “correct” way to function. Sporting closely cropped hair and often wearing stylish male-like attire, she takes her seduction of him almost as a kind of “business-like” challenge, the way in fact that many a woman who discovers a man is gay—or in this case, “also gay”—believes that he only needs the proper heterosexual passion to correct his ways.

      Dominique is too smart to truly believe that she might “convert” Quentin, and it is also doubtful that she seriously wants to do so, since what she clearly finds so intriguing about him—and somewhat like Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) in Luis Buñuel’ Belle de Jour (1967)—so excitingly dangerous are the differences between them: his social “inferiority,” Quentin’s “perverted sexuality,” and finally, and most especially, his secretiveness about his entire life. Each of these “qualities” becomes something she sets out to both discover and correct, just as she might woe a recalcitrant customer for the high-end gowns and suits her company designs.

     She stalks him without pause, meeting up with his former male lover, Soukaz to discover as much as she can about their relationship, befriending the smitten but also bitter Chris, and even,  after she goes through her new lover’s wallet and address book, tracking down his mother who works in a cafeteria, just to check her out.

     They are both such attractive people, Dominique and Quentin, that he have to believe that their sexual acts are more than fulfilling, as they both claim they are to one another. Yet Jacquot, despite his picture-perfect actors, goes out of his way to portray their sexual encounters quite discretely. Sex, it is quite clear is not at the heart of their relationship.

       What Dominique—with her offers of money, new employment opportunities, and even her sheik apartment which she encourages the young man to use as his own—has not quite prepared for is the young man’s pride and refusal to totally engage in the role of an older woman’s young lover. Not only is he understandably bored by the social world she inhabits, he is purposely gauche and intentionally uncomfortable in playing the role she has planned for him. Indeed, what at first intrigues both of them, but soon becomes a struggle for power between the two, is his continual testing her limits—at first with little things like picking up a whole fish to eat it in a restaurant (Dominique demands he put it back on the plate and it eat it properly, not because of dining ethics but because she is with him). At another point, he refuses to leave the video game when she demands they move on during a date. And gradually, he stays out nights, returning to her only on certain days when they once more engage in their “fantastic” sex.

      Quentin—who bears the same name as William Faulkner’s suicidal “lover” of his older sister Caddie in The Sound and the Fury—appears to be like so many of the young Czech boy hustlers in the works of Wiktor Grodecki, someone who sells his body only to intensely guard the secrets of his soul. And it is that secretiveness that infuriates the normative thinker Dominique. Despite her seeming appetite for adventure, she remains, after all, a rather heteronormative figure, at heart  a cold being, as she describes her father. When she cries, as critic Stephen Holden wrote about the actress in another role, her tears seem  "to emanate from a realm somewhere beyond feeling.” To me, they do not seem to come from within, but suddenly appear, dripping from her eyes as if they crept down from her forehead to find a suitable outlet.

      So too is our young beauty, despite his seemingly “perverted” lifestyle, a seeker of the normal. Both of these figures, indeed, beneath their bluff of naughty and dangerous sexuality, are seeking normalcy much like the central figure of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and they use that cold comfort of everyday reality to torture one another.

       Hooked up with a man closer to her age by her friend, Dominque takes him back to her apartment, presumably to irritate Quentin. But when she discovers her lover is still absent, she engages in a quite standard sexual encounter with her date.

       For his part, Quentin falls in love with the daughter of one of Dominique’s wealthy clients, Marine Thorpe (Roxane Mesquida), a spoiled teenager with nothing special to offer, but who permits Quentin the macho necessity, despite her wealthy parents, of seeking to support her. Indeed both of the empty-headed socialites find Quentin the “perfect” potential son in-law, and plot with him so that a trip he makes to Morocco with Dominque, will also serve as a kind of accidental meet-up with their daughter.

      In one of the most torture-ridden moments of the film, Dominique insists upon a Japanese dinner shared by the two “new” couples, she and her new friend and Quentin and Marine. When it turns out that even her friend knows Marine’s parents, it becomes a sort of battle of the generations, the two elderly figures judging the youthful pair, while they, in turn, dismiss their elders as unable to comprehend the own feelings and emotional needs.

      Some of the nights Quentin spends apart from Dominque, she discovers, he is hustling male clients to obtain more money than even she can pay, he insists, that he might support his new girlfriend.

      It is Dominque who now plots revenge. But unfortunately by this time we no longer care, having recognized that they were never a good match and that her inexplicable obsession—just as she constantly expresses her fears about nearly everything in her life, including her former husband—has become “boring.” 

      Chris, who. out of revenge for Quentin’s betrayal of his own love, has arranged with a friend to take pictures of Quentin having sex with men, offers her the perfect tool for blackmail. We never see the pictures, but apparently the quite graphic photos show him even serving as a bottom, and certainly are revealing enough that even Marine’s spineless parents would have to cut off their daughter’s relationship with him.

       Dominque shows him the photographs, just as he appears to be ready to return to the uneasy relationship with Dominque. But recognizing that it is now all to late, she burns them, freeing him to go, but he now refuses to do so, knowing that, in truth, he has nowhere to go. What he describes as the morgue-like atmosphere of the Thorpe home, is clearly not any more “normal” than his and Dominique’s bizarre relationship. But she is now utter disinterested in her former prey, and summons her friend to insist that Quentin leave her apartment.

        The two finally meet up quite by accident a few years later with Dominque, now with longer hair and waiting a man closer to age to pick up tickets for an evening at the theater or opera, spotting Quentin with his young daughter, a child he has had with another girl closer to his age whose parents have given him a job in the hotel they run. Both have seemingly found the normalcy they have been seeking, although even now he suggests that if his own current relationship should end, he’ll take his daughter and run. Perhaps that is, after all, contemporary normalcy. If so, I’d prefer remain in the dark shadows of Chris’ gay bar. Fortunately, something that seems beyond the realization of Jacquot’s normalized figures, there are so many hundreds of other choices.

       In the end, unfortunately, The School of Flesh educates its students in a manner that gives the LGBTQ community a bad name. 

Los Angeles, November 9, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review and The Queer Blog: All Things LGBTQ+ (November 2021).



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