French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot turns his attention to un amour fou in his latest film “L’ecole de la Chair” (“The School of Flesh”). An elegant rumination on the attraction and chemistry between an older woman and younger man, the film is a skillful blend of fire and ice that subtly conveys the emotional extremes fraught in the relationship. Decidedly for adult auds, the pic has definite specialized appeal outside France and should broaden the director’s commercial rep and prestige.
Dominique (Isabelle Huppert) is a career woman out on the town when she spots Quentin (Vincent Martinez) working behind the bar at a quiet night spot. Though she feigns disinterest, it’s obvious that a lot of eye contact is exchanging. Another bar denizen — a cross dresser named Chris (Vincent Linden) — senses it, too, and approaches her with enough information to either whet her appetite or send her running for the door. However, the latter option wouldn’t make for much of a movie.
The first, brief movement of this sexual dance is tentative; chaste. It offers up all the reasons to defer — of which there are many. They are of two different worlds socially, financially, in education and political perspective. It simply lays out definitively that logic will not be a consideration when they finally get into bed.
Jacquot has a slow, deliberate and elegant style that offers an inevitability to the situation. The two characters are drawn into a liaison. Neither is particularly forthcoming about how they feel, but those around them are more than happy to comment. There’s a lot of talk, considerable sexual tension and just a taste of flesh and passion to sustain the nature of the piece.
Exquisitely framed in widescreen by Caroline Champetier, “The School of Flesh” is a quietly observed story about raging carnality adapted from a novel by Yukio Mishima. It understands the intensity of the moment and how love will suddenly evaporate without leaving a trace. Scripter Jacques Fieschi effectively transposes Mishima’s story to France, retaining its salient universal elements.
The picture provides Huppert with one of her best showcases in years. It’s one of her first truly mature parts, and she imbues it with an inner strength and courage that is every bit as appealing and more than the waif-like roles which launched her career. Martinez is up to the challenge of his part, going toe-to-toe with the actress, embodying both the blatant sexuality and inner sensitivity which allows the attraction to work. The supporting cast is suitably colorful with Linden an enjoyable surprise cast against type in an effeminate role and Marthe Keller back on the scene as a resilient, confident beauty.
The picture definitely goes to the head of the class among this year’s Cannes crop, delivering an elegant superior work of resonance that will be embraced by upscale audiences internationally.