Political Film Society - Newsletter #40 - May 1, 1999

May 1, 1999


The School of Flesh, the English translation of the film L’Ecole de la Chair, is based on a novel not yet translated into English by Yukio Mishima, whose gay proclivities came to an end though sucide in 1970. The film, released in France in 1998 and shoehorned into art theatres in the United States in 1999, is directed by Benoît Jacquot. The heroine Dominique (played by Isabelle Huppert) is a good-looking affluent divorcee in her 40s, hunting for a husband or at least satisfying male companionship. She decides to go to a gay bar, doubtless naively believing that gay men are more sensitive and will become straight if only they could find the right woman. A transsexual man, who is sensitive and talkative, tells her that the handsome face staring at her from the bar is bisexal, and she leaves the bar determined to make contact with the friendly stud, Quentin (played by Vincent Martinez), who is a Franco-Moroccan in his 20s. On her next visit to the bar, she interacts with Quentin, and the two soon end up in the sack, an encounter evidently the best sex that the two ever enjoyed, and he refuses to accept payment from her. Since she wants more than a one-night stand, she plunges into a relationship in an almost Faustian manner but initially unaware that she will not be the person controlling the relationship, despite her affluence; Dominique is not a dominatrix (a pun perhaps intended). She tries to buy control, paying off his debts, having her "boy toy" move in with her, and she seeks to train him Pygmalion-style to behave in the society of the rich and famous. However, Quentin is a Don Juan accustomed to late-night hustling, and she wants a conventional relationship, so tears come down her cheeks on the many occasions when he fails to come home to sleep with her. Ultimately, she cannot take his infidelity, especially when it appears that he is about to marry the young daughter of an affluent friend of hers who has cuckolded her. Although he promises to visit her for encounters while married, she cannot accept a second fiddle role, and he ends up crying that the relationship has ended. Two years later, they meet briefly at a subway stop.


She is married, evidently happily, but he is divorced and has returned to live with his mother and the daughter from his unsuccessful marriage whom he has named Dominique. While she turns away without emotion, his last glance at her shows that his love for her remains and will never end. Although the film focuses on the repeated emotional stress of the woman, in the end he is the one whom the film has not really understood, and our intuition seems to predict that the story is far from over; indeed, we leave the theatre begging for a sequel. The movie is all the more remarkable because, though the concept of a rich woman and a bicultural "kept boy" sustains the suspense for a general audience, and perhaps could only be filmed credibly in France, in actuality the portrayal was surely based on the many experiences of which Yukio Mishima was doubtless aware in which middle-aged rich men have tried to maintain oversexed "kept boys." What moviegoers will most enjoy in the film is doubtless the way in which the female lead goes manhunting, is seduced, and then has to adjust to the fact that her emotions and her objective goals are in disharmony. However, the principal theme is surprisingly a plot from nineteenth century romantic novels—two persons fall in love, but due to their different social stations (and in this case two cultures), the love is unattainable and ultimately unrequited, and the hurt is felt mostly by the lover in the lower class, who this time has mixed ethnic ancestry. Her tears are over disappointments that involve her inability to control her boy, that is, joy but lack of acceptance of her lover, whereas his tears are over the fact that his love involved both joy and total acceptance and thus was truly genuine yet in the context of an existence much less unidimensional than hers. The sequel to The School of Flesh that we seem to desire, pandering to our idealistic images of romance, will thus inevitably focus on the tyranny of conventional heterosexuality in a world that is more polymorphous than perverse and on the intolerance of the monocultural rich, male and female, who believe that they can fool around with the bicultural poor and walk away without remorse. MH