French actress Isabelle Huppert, nominated for a record 13 Cesar Awards, has made a career out of playing nervy characters with all manner of sexual foibles or secrets. In Special Treatment, she’s a high-class prostitute with dormant issues fueling a desire for a career change. The eighth feature offering from cult filmmaker Jeanne Labrune, this generally well sketched and set-up drama cashes in too soon on its early intrigue, though, abandoning darker overtones for rather wan interpersonal revelations. Those seeking kinky erotic drama of the sort found in early David Cronenberg will be sorely disappointed.
The story centers on Alice Bergerac (Huppert, above right), a well-to-do fortysomething who serves up high-end sexual fantasies for her clientele, from schoolgirl submissiveness to S&M dominance. Neurotic psychologist Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners), meanwhile, is stuck in a marriage in which he and wife Helene (Valerie Dreville) can no longer conceal their distaste for one another, lobbing open attacks in front of mixed company at a party. When a friend recommends Alice to Xavier, he gives her a call, just on the heels of Alice suffering a nasty incident with another client. They meet, and she explains that she only offers bundled packages of a minimum of 10 sessions, and so they embark on a professional relationship in which Alice gamely tries to coax out of Xavier his preferences, and get to the root of his unhappiness. In doing so, each party learns a little something.
Special Treatment is at its best when it’s mapping out and concentrating on the parallels between psychoanalysis and prostitution — the discreet locations, the exchange of money, the promise of anonymity, the establishment of rules, and specific time limits. Never mind that its inciting incident for Alice’s occupational second-guessing feels relatively tame, and for a moment seems a part of her extended role play. Once it settles into a more standardized groove of interpersonal blossoming, maturation and desired occupational flight — no matter how elliptically sketched, in achingly European fashion — the movie is considerably less interesting, because its big-picture plot movements and character decisions all feel staked out and predetermined. Alice will feel increasing frustration with Xavier’s inability to articulate his sexual wants, and Xavier will recognize her latent unhappiness and eventually start taking steps to try to help Alice ease out of prostitution.
Director Jeanne Labrune, working from a script co-written with Richard Debuisne, also does a fairly risible job of explaining the holes or conflict in Xavier and Helene’s marriage. If it were merely or only a matter of sexual incompatibility or stasis, the film could still exist fine as is, but the sheer glee with which Helene attacks Xavier in certain scenes raises all sorts of questions that go largely unanswered. As it moves toward its painfully French finale (it gives away nothing to say that the movie ends with a character staring off into the distance in reflection), awkward symbolism — in the form of an antique angel sculpture — is also visited upon the story, a sighing reality which seems remote in the quite solid opening act.
Through it all, Huppert has a sly technique, and an endlessly fascinating face. Ergo, Special Treatment never slips in holding one’s attention when she is on the screen. Unfortunately, the film’s intrigue unravels with each passing minute. There’s great promise in this premise — of a dissection of the value of arguably substitutive experiences, and how long they can or even should last — but this Treatment falls short, and delivers no special and lastingly memorable catharsis or insights.
Labrune’s film comes to DVD housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 2.0 stereo audio track. The transfer is a polished and clear one, if somewhat muted in color, absent any hiccups with edge enhancement. A shame, though, that there are no EPK interviews with Huppert or Labrune, or any other on-set or behind-the-scenes material. For more information, click here. C- (Movie) D+ (Disc)