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Benoit Jacquot's new film

'The School of Flesh': Sin Flick

May 26, 1999
Web posted at: 12:47 p.m. EDT (1647 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Films about sexual obsession are pretty much a worldwide cinema staple. For some reason, they were more popular in the United States when you couldn't show intercourse at every conceivable angle; Alfred Hitchcock was great at it. "Fatal Attraction" is a more recent example, but there's a ton of others.

On the other hand, the folks in France, hot-blooded proponents of sensuality that they supposedly are, can't seem to get enough of this kind of thing.

People meet and couple so quickly in French films, you'd think there was an oncoming nuclear air raid. The idea seems to be that you need to get it done quick and dirty, then one or both of the participants should get hung up on doing it again, quicker and dirtier if possible. Then they want to do it again and again and again, which usually leads to a violent act of some sort. And that's your movie.

An immediately recognizable example is "Last Tango in Paris" (1972). The lovers in that one don't even bother to learn each other's names (or lie down, for that matter) before they're goin' at it like rabbits. "Last Tango" is pretentious in the extreme, but Marlon Brando's staggering performance and Vittorio Storaro's superb cinematography are more than enough to keep you interested.

That's not the case, however, with director Benoit Jacquot's new film, "The School of Flesh." It's based on a book by the celebrated Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, so there's a general aura of unforgiving eroticism present in the story line.

Sex without sex

There's even the requisite obsessive, this one named Dominique (Isabelle Huppert, who, according to my admittedly rough calculations, has appeared in every French movie ever made.) But there really isn't all that much sex, for some odd reason.

That's a big problem.

Another problem is that Huppert starts wringing her hands over a pretty-boy hustler named Quentin (the long-muscled Vincent Martinez, who's got a shirtless/blue-jeaned case of the Calvin Kleins) before she learns anything about him. There is such a thing as too much mystery.

Huppert's character is a wealthy "older" woman who works in the fashion industry. Quentin is a bisexual hustler whose studied gestures and gleaming smiles are obviously designed solely to jostle the lower corpuscles of every warm-blooded vertebrate in the room. You can tell right away that he's phony and no good, but Huppert, evidently never having seen this type of guy at any actual fashion shoots, just can't believe her luck.

Then, as Mick and Keith prophesied, she's playin' with fire. It's sort of funny watching this stuff shot French-style, with no music and no fear of sloppy-looking jump cuts. Compared to the American, Demi Moore approach (with all the boom-boom music and over-elegant camera work), this film is almost quaint.


Even Quentin's tendency to hustle boys while he's living with Dominique is treated as a mere character quirk. Dominique cries about it once in a while, sure, but then they're right back at it.

You see their butts a lot. You just don't see their butts doing anything but standing there, and I know this sounds awful, but it kills the movie. What, you have to be asking yourself, is everyone getting so obsessive about?

Is it the social life? Nah. Dominique gets all huffy and walks out of a game room while Quentin drives a really cool NASCAR video game. Is it the quiet dinners, like the one in a fancy restaurant in which Quentin picks up his sea bass and sniffs it in front of the cultivated Dominique? Nah again.

I'd like to yell the real answer, now that I'm not in the theater: I guess they're crazy for the bedroom action, but you simply don't know that if you hardly see them in bed together! Yeah, there's one fairly graphic moment, but the rest is all pretty perfunctory movie heat.

Now that we've got that out of our system

Huppert really is a wonderful actress, and she easily gives the material more dignity than it deserves. But Martinez isn't believable. He's a good-looking guy, but he doesn't seem to carry the kind of burden that Quentin must certainly feel pushing down on him. You can't imagine dark clouds rolling across his starry eyes, and Huppert seems far too smart to fall for him.

Marthe Keller is also on hand. She played a beautiful terrorist in "Black Sunday" back in 1977. And she's pretty good in "The School of Flesh." Her character turns out to be a dim bulb in her own right, but Keller is a lively, likable actress. She and Huppert are the best reasons to see this one.

"The School of Flesh" reveals several backsides and there's that one scene of somewhat graphic sex. It got old after a while. Rated R. 102 minutes. In French with English subtitles.

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