Flesh and Fantasy

Looking at looking: A middle-aged filmmaker whose career dates to the tide-pool stage of the French New Wave, Benoit Jacquot has made his belated local reputation as the director of gorgeous young women searching for self-actualization through the labyrinth of contemporary Paris.

Released here over a period of 20 months, Jacquot's real-time tour de force A Single Girl; his suave, creepy, superbly fragmented The Disenchanted; and last summer's posh, fluid Seventh Heaven were offbeat projects that staked their maker's claim to a mode of filmmaking that infused an out-front gamine fixation with a mixture of formal intelligence and psychological bravado. The School of Flesh, Jacquot's first film to have an Uptown opening, is more blatantly upscale— an elegant account of mad love and cool vengeance, adapted as a vehicle for Isabelle Huppert by one of the busiest French screenwriters, Jacques Fieschi, from a relatively obscure novel by Yukio Mishima.

The movie has been poorly received in France, perhaps because it so aggressively locates itself in the mainstream of current French cine-sophistication. Slumming at a Paris gay bar, Huppert's Dominique— a divorced clothing designer of a certain age— spots a young, perhaps Arab, hustler (newcomer Vincent Martinez) with smoldering eyes and a boxer's pushed-in face. Her long, level gaze is met by his insolent stare. Although the kid, whose name is Quentin, may have been the central figure in Mishima's novel, the movie is shot from Dominique's perspective— or, rather, from Jacquot's own fascination with her point of view.

Looking but not seeing: Huppert in The School of Flesh
courtesy of Stratosphere
Looking but not seeing: Huppert in The School of Flesh

Details

The School of Flesh
Directed by Benoit Jacquot
Written by Jacques Fieschi from the novel by Yukio Mishima
A Stratosphere Entertainment release
Opens February 26

'Luther Price: Imitation of Life'
At the Museum of Modern Art,
February 25
At Thread Waxing Space,
February 26≠28

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Self-possessed and a little dreamy, Dominique likes to watch, and so too does Jacquot's camera— although the sex that defines her relationship with Quentin takes place largely offscreen. The School of Flesh is at least partially a spectacle of public passion— the movie's hottest scene has the couple kissing on the street. Meanwhile, Dominique plays with Quentin as though he were a doll— keeping him, dressing him, and even getting him a modeling gig. Social class seems more a flash point than age in this affair. Dominique searches through Quentin's things, surreptitiously visits the cafeteria where his mother works. Her love is a form of curiosity, but despite her desire to know, she scarcely sees what is in front of her. Indeed, for all Dominique's jealousy, there doesn't seem to be much erotic chemistry.

Predicated as it is on Huppert's pensive, provocative blankness, the action moves a bit slowly, although, as is often the case with Jacquot, events make more sense after the movie is over. The School of Flesh is reactive and cerebral, but the trip that Dominique and Quentin take to Morocco has a vivid, comic-strip economy that subsequently expands in the mind. Such brevity is the soul of Jacquot's wit. The director is a master of oblique conversations and half-conscious gestures. His is a cinema of sudden swoops, evasive interruptions, eliminated transitions, and emotionally charged silences. The key exchanges are almost all set across the landscape of a restaurant table.

If The School of Flesh is a good deal more conventional in its scenario than Seventh Heaven, Jacquot nevertheless creates a perverse subtext by cross-referencing the latter film's cast. Vincent Lindon, who played Seventh Heaven's confused husband opposite his own real-life wife, is here extravagantly nellified as the bar owner who may or may not have been Quentin's former lover; as another one of Dominique's potential rivals, François Berléand, the Seventh Heaven hypnotist who cured Lindon's wife, is no less enigmatic here in the role of Quentin's former trick. Such subterranean connections are welcome; framed with flamenco stomps and cries, the School of Flesh narrative tends toward an abstract, quasi-ritual quality.

Despite its inevitability, this trajectory is not without its twists (although, at barely 100 minutes and even with its ellipses, The School of Flesh feels overlong). Still, if there's less street energy here than in previous Jacquot films, the stasis is redeemed by the glimpses Huppert permits the director into the depths of her turbulent psyche. The movie's climactic scene and its moving coda are as emotionally complicated as anything he and she have ever done.

Less characterized by sangfroid than Benoit Jacquot in his cut-and-paste erotic obsessions, the Super-8 film artist known as Luther Price makes disturbing, primal film objects— many of which are showing this week as part of MOMA's ongoing narrow-gauge program, as well as at Thread Waxing Space, where the Boston-based artist is having a gallery show.

A onetime student of Super-8 guru Saul Levine, Price creates films with a similarly heightened degree of materiality. He's sufficiently pragmatic to use TV as a crude F/X generator, but however raw, his movies are never less than precise in their complex layering. Ten years in the making, his 15-minute Home conjures up a lifetime of sinister hysteria in an empty domestic landscape by playing off bits of re-filmed home movies and photo-booth photos against an aggravating— possibly maternal— voice-over, looped and sweetened with underlying suspense music and an occasional scream.

Childhood programming is a recurring Price theme. His 10-minute Mr. Wonderful (1988) matches a single, scratched close-up of an LP portrait of goofy Fred Rogers to selections from the record. The effect is less ironic than defamiliarizing. At one point, Mr. Rogers sings a song suggesting that childish clowning is a way of warding off fear— an insight that provides the context for Clown (1992), a brief psychodrama in which Price films himself in a clown mask, barking, slurping, and obscenely pushing his tongue through the mask's too-small mouth hole. It suggests some of Bruce Nauman's video performances, but Price brilliantly ups the alienation level by using a child's pull toy (with a similar clown face) as his costar.

Price's formalist side may be seen in Bottle Can (1993), a montage of TV bar rolls and (mainly) outer-space imagery set to a hypnotic mantra encouraging the listener to "relax," and Run (1994), a study of birds perched on a wire that uses visible splices and skewed framelines to produce an additional grid, but he is best known for his confrontational imagery. The notorious Sodom, which has been screened in a number of different versions (and proscribed by a variety of festivals) since 1990, could be the illumination of Jerry Falwell's unconscious— a horrific assemblage of 1970s gay porno films retrieved from a dumpster in Boston's Combat Zone. Accompanied by Gregorian chants and interspersed with crowd scenes from biblical epics, this luridly discolored tangle of limbs, orifices, and bruises is brilliantly edited— both for its abstract rhythmic and all-too-representational qualities.

Easier to take, Price's 1994 Jellyfish Sandwich is a no less remarkable demonstration of his montage pyrotechnics. The filmmaker juxtaposes brief shards showing Hawaiian tourist spots, Hong Kong boat people, Chinese ideograms, World War II bombing footage, and bits of televised football (upside down and backward) to transform air war in Asia into a macho spectator sport. Scoring this material to a slightly speeded-up medley of Carpenters songs, Price successfully meshes his found images by overworking the film surface and creating deliberate frameline jumps. The effect is funny as well as epic. Like the best narrow-gauge films, Jellyfish Sandwich is a criticism of the mind-boggling waste inherent in even the cheapest commercial filmmaking.

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