Lushly mounted, Olivier Schatzky’s “The Pupil,” based on Henry James’ story, is a nice, decorative costume drama about the complex relationship and turbulent lives of a repressed instructor and his young pupil in turn-of-the-century Europe. As literary cinema, “The Pupil” is not the best of its breed, but civilized pic has enough going for it to warrant a theatrical release in major urban centers, where it’s likely to be embraced by auds who have supported Merchant Ivory and more recent Jane Austen adaptations.
Now that Austen’s literary oeuvre is all but exhausted, it may be James’ turn to gain wide cinematic appeal. With a successful revival of “The Heiress” on Broadway last year, and Jane Campion’s eagerly awaited “Portrait of a Lady” due out for Christmas, the author is enjoying a resurgence of attention, after the cycle of Merchant Ivory films (“The Europeans,” “The Bostonians”) in the late ‘ 70s and early ’80s.
“The Pupil” begins with an aristocratic family hiring Julien (Vincent Cassel) , a 25-year-old instructor with no experience, to tutor their bright and precocious teenage son, Morgan (Caspar Salmon). The first sessions are tentative , with Julien and Morgan trying hard to figure out and control each other. What’s beyond doubt, however, is the strong emotional rapport the two establish from their first encounter.
It’s as much a learning process for Julien as it is for Morgan, for he gradually discovers that, despite outward appearances of wealth, the family is financially ruined and morally bankrupt. Both parents go to pains to maintain a facade of respectability as they are evicted from one house after another, depending on the kindness of various acquaintances for a place to stay. It takes some time for Julien to realize that he will never get paid for his services and that he’s being manipulated by the parents.
Set in l897, in a decadent European society soon to be shattered by WWI, script by Schatzky and co-writer Eve Deboise captures the empty, amoral lifestyle of a social class on the verge of extinction. Story then jumps ahead to a decade later, when the family relocates to Russia, where they desperately try to hang on to their upper-class way of life.
Like most of James’ work, tale is dark and ironic in its insights on family power games, specifically the transformation of a guileless tutor who’s initially more innocent and childish than his 12-year-old pupil. But Schatzky seems to be more intrigued by the evolving intimacy between tutor and pupil, structuring his movie as a love story. Helmer entertains some interesting notions about the blurry line that separates childhood from adulthood, a perennial theme in French cinema that stays in the periphery here.
Beautifully shot, with images that are more pretty than illuminating, “The Pupil” epitomizes the old French Tradition of Quality, a style that four decades ago provided the main impetus for Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and others to launch the New Wave.
Both literary and literal-minded, “The Pupil” contains a few passages of lively dialogue, ironic humor and affecting sentiment. Rest of the film consists of lengthy tableaux, exquisite to look at but not quite vivant. The movie runs about half an hour after its story is over, suggesting that a slender narrative has been stretched to the limit.
Yet “The Pupil” is not without its virtues. The two lead actors are arguably pic’s most solid and enjoyable element. Salmon renders an extraordinarily intuitive performance as Morgan, a child who knows too much about life for his own good. He’s well supported by Cassel as the sensitive tutor torn between the dictates of his heart and the harsh necessity of making a living.
Production values are impeccable.