Special Treatment

July 21, 2011
Isabelle Huppert as the world's oldest schoolgirl
Isabelle Huppert as the world's oldest schoolgirl

This may not be the first time that anyone has recognised a peculiar affinity between psychoanalysis and prostitution, but Jeanne Labrune’s Special Treatment, explores that echo with impressive subtlety. This is a quiet, evenly-paced film that looks initially as if it might be a comedy, but soon settles into a dramatic pattern that takes us ever deeper into the minds of the two lead characters.

Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners) is a psychoanalyst who sits impassively while a succession of bourgeois neurotics discuss their anxieties. The name was presumably chosen as an intentional reference to the Xavier de Maistre, who wrote that literary oddity, Voyage Around my Room (1794), but it’s an oblique connection, perhaps emphasising the hermetic nature of Xavier’s personality.

Alice Bergerac (Isabelle Huppert) is an aging prostitute who caters to the fantasies of her clients, using costumes and role-playing. Her name has suggestions of Cyrano de Bergerac, another well known fantasist. Both Xavier and Alice are successful at their jobs, and deeply unhappy.

In psychoanalytical parlance, the problem is one of  ‘transference’ – the tendency for the patient to become emotionally attached to the analyst. To avoid this situation, Xavier sits like a stone as one patient says he’s happy, while looking thoroughly miserable. The next, a camp cross-dresser, mutters fatuously that he is only concerned about his weight.

Xavier’s professional lack of affect has fed back into his private life, destroying his marriage. Accusing him of being cynical and indifferent, his wife (Valérie Dréville) sends him packing.

Meanwhile Alice, well into her fifties, is dressing up like a schoolgirl for one client, and impersonating a dutiful housewife for another. She is as cold as Xavier, a thorough-going professional. It is only when a customer turns violent that she is forced to defend herself, and gets a sudden rush of feeling. She looks hard at her life and decides she wants to quit.

They meet through a mutual acquaintance, after Xavier inquires about the charming woman they brush against in the supermarket. He has a great urge to contact Alice, but when she answers his phone call he finds he is not in the mood for sex. Against every Freudian tenet, he begins to see that his need – and his problem – is not sexual. It is empathy that he craves.

Alice finds it equally hard to understand her new client. At one point she accuses him of viewing her as a lesser version of his wife – another form of transference. However, Xavier’s reluctance chimes in with in her own growing distaste for her work. She wants him to recommend an analyst who will help her break free of the life she leads. She has already paid one unpromising visit to the grim Robert Masse (Mathieu Carrière), an analyst that Xavier’s wife had proposed as a negative example. He had reacted angrily when she said: “You’re just like Robert Masse”.

Xavier’s choice is a new acquaintance, Pierre Cassagne, a psychiatrist who works with mental patients. Cassagne’s character is central to the story. His patients are not bored neurotics or pathetic fantasists, but people with serious, intractable conditions. Cassagne is tough, wiry and devoid of humour, but he has a wellspring of human sympathy that distinguishes him from the others. This part is played with perfect, understated control by Richard Debuisne.

Psychoanalysis may be an interminable process but movies are brief. By the end of this film, Xavier and Alice have each found a resolution that comes from recognising their own inner strength. This might be seen as a triumph of the French school of psychoanalysis, which works to break down the ego ideal, as opposed to the American variety which tends to shore up the ego. It is a triumph, though, that occurs without analysis. It is the interaction of the lead characters that allows them to recognise the destructive nature of the roles they had grown accustomed to playing.

Special Treatment may be seen as an exploration of psychoanalytic thinking, but also a critique. It suggests that if everyone is basically sick in some way, so too might we all be physicians.

The film’s main thrust is humanistic, empathising the centrality of sympathy and understanding. This is reinforced by a neat piece of symbolism involving an antique statue of an angel that gets passed around between characters. The famous French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, would have seen this as an example of ‘the gift’ which is constitutive of the symbolic order. In other words, it is a symbol of that understanding which allows one to see the world, and one’s place in it, with a new clarity of vision.

This is an unflattering role for Isabelle Huppert, who is not conventionally beautiful but always compelling. She turned 58 this year, and those small signs of age give an added poignancy to this performance. In a tense but deadpan story in which everyone seems to be struggling to maintain control, it requires a particular quality of acting to play the role of a woman grown tired of playing roles.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 16, 2011

France. Rated MA15+, 95 minutes.