In 1986, independent feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden released her film Working Girls, which focused on one hectic day in the life of a prostitute working at an upscale brothel in Manhattan. One of the things that made the film so striking was that rather than viewing sex workers either as fallen innocents to be pitied or as brazen temptresses, Borden portrayed...read more
In 1986, independent feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden released her film Working Girls, which focused on one hectic day in the life of a prostitute working at an upscale brothel in Manhattan. One of the things that made the film so striking was that rather than viewing sex workers either as fallen innocents to be pitied or as brazen temptresses, Borden portrayed prostitution as just another job -- one with certain advantages (high pay for a relatively short work week) and disadvantages (dealing with the customers), where the employees were often at the mercy of the boss (a madam who is willfully ignorant of the realities her employees face). Jeanne Labrune’s film Sans Queue Ni Tete (aka Special Treatment) takes a somewhat similar approach in that it deals with the day-to-day realities in the life of a prostitute while drawing parallels between her work and that of one of her customers who also deals with the personal needs and anxieties of his clients -- a psychiatrist. In Labrune’s world, there isn’t a lot of glamour in either sex or psychoanalysis, just a lot of folks trying to sort out just what it is they want and need in life.
In Special Treatment, Isabelle Huppert plays Alice Bergerac, an upmarket call girl who meets with her customers at a room she keeps in an elegant hotel. Alice’s specialty is in role playing, conjuring up specific scenarios for her clients in which she can be anything from a bubbly housewife from the 1950s to a dominatrix who quite literally treats her partner as her dog. Alice is in her late forties, and though she’s still slim and attractive, she’s aware that she can only continue in her line of work for so long, especially after one of her johns makes it clear he no longer feels she can pull off the schoolgirl routine he likes and another responds to her with brutal violence. Meanwhile, Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners) is a psychiatrist who has lost all enthusiasm for his work and his marriage; Xavier and his wife, Helene (Valerie Dreville), also a therapist, hardly speak, and he can barely tolerate listening to his patients, fully aware that some of them are in far worse shape than they let on, while he’s scarcely able to do anything about it. When one of Xavier’s friends decides the newly single man needs some recreational sex, he gives him Alice’s phone number, and eventually she sets up a set of ten sessions with Xavier (she doesn’t do one-night stands with her customers). However, it turns out they have more in common than they expected -- just as Alice isn’t sure what to do with herself beyond working as a call girl, Xavier can’t decide what sort of sexual fantasy he wants from Alice, even though he’s clearly attracted to her. Alice and Xavier also share a deep passion for antiques, which in both cases appears to be symptomatic of other yearnings in their lives. Eventually, Alice decides what she needs from Xavier is therapy, but since it would violate his ethical code to sleep with one of his clients, he has to find an analyst willing to help her.
While Xavier and his clients are a vitally important part of Special Treatment, the film belongs to Isabelle Huppert, who effortless commands the screen whenever the camera turns her way, and she gives Alice a greater depth and complexity than sometimes seems evident in the script. Huppert (who was 57 when the film opened in
France) radiates a sexy confidence and brings an undertow of dry wit to most of her scenes of Alice at work, just as she adds a welcome depth to her anxieties as she ponders launching a new career or calculates the number of times she’ll have to have sex in order to pay for the latest antique on her want list. Bouli Lanners is more problematic as Xavier; while he’s playing a man struggling with depression and a loss of purpose in his life, too much of the time he seems caught up in a gray lack of direction, unable to make his ennui compelling onscreen, and he doesn’t always play well off his often eccentric patients. (Given how much livelier Valerie Dreville seems as his wife, it’s no wonder she’s grown tired of him.) Director Jeanne Labrune gives the film a clean, tidy visual sense and the film moves with a graceful but assured rhythm; however, the screenplay (by Labrune and Richard Debuisne) spends a bit too much time on the individual stories in Alice’s and Xavier’s lives before bringing them together. The film almost seems afraid of letting them interact -- curious, given how much they have in common -- and takes an unexpected and rather curious left turn near the finale. Special Treatment is a further reminder than Isabelle Huppert remains one of the best and bravest actresses in the European cinema, yet as a film it never seems to live up to the potential of its best moments; it’s good and engaging, but the promise of its first act doesn’t quite pay off in the end.
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