Director Jeanne Labrune dishes on sex, power and the role of psychoanalysis in the pursuit of both, in her latest film, Special Treatment.
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4 Jul 2011 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

If you've never thought about the parallels between seeing a shrink and seeing a prostitute, French director Jeanne Labrune's seventh theatrical feature, Special Treatment provides a useful crash course.

The film is a bittersweet examination of personal renewal for two strangers for whom cynicism has replaced enthusiasm about their respective chosen professions.

Anchored by Isabelle Huppert as Alice, a self-employed call girl who's thinking of lying down on an analyst's couch rather than continuing to ply her mattress-based trade, Special Treatment posits that when you're feeling uncomfortable about your life and work, matters are unlikely to improve unless you're willing to befriend Freud. Or, at the very least, get out of your rutting rut.

In a Paris café not far from Pigalle (famous the world over for catering to tourists in search of something naughty in a setting larger than their home computer's screen), Labrune spoke [to SBS] about her latest film, her generation of French feminists and – confirming that sex and power are gripping raw material in both life AND art – the day's startling news that the sexual impropriety case against former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn was weakening like the U.S. dollar against the Euro.

Is being a self-employed call girl legal in France? "No, but it's tolerated," says Labrune, who is 61 and made her first film at age 25.

Alice's customers are sufficiently well off to pay her fees, which start at 300 Euros per encounter for a minimum of ten sessions. Like a therapist guiding patients toward crucial insights, Alice, too, provides a health-promoting service for the gentlemen who partake of her talents. "Her clients are a bit borderline,'" says Labrune. "If they didn't visit Alice they might get into real trouble. She soothes them."

When a client turns violent, Alice begins to think it's time to change careers. But how? (Can she write herself letters of recommendation? "Alice is punctual, hard working and inventive. She is available to work nights and weekends and, until now, has been willing to dress up like a Japanese school girl if that's your fantasy, even though she's closer to 50 than
16.")

While the services sex workers perform are presumably much the same the world over, subtitlers need all their linguistic agility to do justice to an early scene in which Alice is tempted by a vintage set of six drinking glasses in an antiques shop. Alice tells her accompanying friend – also a prostitute – that the purchase price equals the value of "3 pipes." "Pipe" – pronounced "peep" – is French slang for "blow-job" and also, as in English, the correct term for a tobacco receptacle with a stem and a bowl. The antiques dealer, who sells the Sherlock Holmes-accoutrement version, ends up availing himself of Alice's nicotine-free interpretation of the term.

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. And sometimes it's a cash transaction.

In carefully lit and meticulously choreographed sequences, Alice is seen preparing herself and her surroundings for clients. Elsewhere in town (we're given to understand that this is Paris although the film was shot in visually engaging locations in France, Belgium and Luxembourg), therapist Xavier (Bouli Lanners) is preparing his analysts couch the way Alice prepares the bed. Intimate things will transpire in both locations.

As if auditioning for a new show called 'Physician, Heal Thyself', Xavier and his wife – also a therapist – are not getting along. He decamps to a hotel.

Ending up at an orgy that's a poor cousin to the haunting gathering in Eyes Wide Shut only more explicit and less ritualistic, Xavier quickly concludes that for him, sex, like analysis, is a one-on-one relationship, to be conducted in private.

The colleague who provides Alice's phone number tells Xavier that negotiating for her services is "exactly like renting a car." Perhaps – but despite Alice's sleek chassis, the couple have trouble getting out of the figurative car park.

Shifting gears, Xavier refers Alice to an analyst he met when both men bid on the same sculpture at an art auction. This practitioner (co-screenwriter Richard Debuisne, who often collaborates with Labrune) works at a mental hospital (whose endearing denizens are played by a theatre troupe comprised of real-life hospital patients) and has to decide whether or not to accept Alice for treatment.

Desire is rekindled all around.

"I made my first film at age 25," says Labrune. "It wasn't easy – there weren't that many female role models around. Nobody came right out and said 'Women can't make movies' but that was the subtext. There was Agnes Varda, Liliana Cavani, Yanick Bellon."

Labrune's filmography includes 1998's Beware of My Love – a lyric borrowed from Carmen – in which a fearlessly forthright Nathalie Baye excels as a woman who enters into a strictly carnal arrangement with a man (smoldering Daniel Duval) who seeks more.

The basic ingredients couldn't be simpler: one man, one woman, sexual desire. Conversations are brief and to the point. It's a movie by and for adults in which the sex is edgy and the full-frontal nudity is exclusively, unabashedly masculine.

Labrune wrote the original French-language screenplay to Vatel, based on the life of chef François Vatel who went down in history for committing suicide when the fish course of a meal meant to impress King Louis the 14th arrived late. After Labrune devoted 8 years to trying to raise the money to direct the tale herself, it was transformed by Roland Joffe into a lavish but ill-fated English-language film that opened the Cannes film festival in 2000.

How much did Labrune's original vision get altered? Well, for starters, "I saw Vatel as anorexic – the images we have of him show him as very lean."

Labrune would have liked a French-speaking foreigner such as Jeremy Irons or John Malkovich, since "Vatel's parents were Dutch, so an accent would not have been out of place." The role went to Gerard Depardieu.

Whatever descriptive terms might apply to the prodigiously gifted, prolific and versatile Depardieu, "anorexic" is not one of them.

Speaking of charismatic Frenchmen with outsized appetites, Labrune knows the Strauss-Kahns – Dominique and his wife, former French TV journalist, Anne Sinclair – well enough to call them by their first names. While a friend can only feel suspense and dismay, any screenwriter would be jealous of the twists and turns in the tale since the presidential hopeful the French call by his initials "DSK" was arrested on 14 May at a New York airport and charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid.

The allegations may or may not pass scrutiny in court, but the state of the male-female balance of power is ever-ripe for a good shaking up.

Labrune reminisced about the early editions, over 30 years ago, of what grew into the influential International Women's Film Festival in the Paris suburb of Creteil. "I remember the violent reactions –the first few years were for women only. The idea of excluding men really stirred up strong emotions, incredible anger – there were instances of arson."

Labrune also recalls a pioneering restaurant in central Paris called The Potiron (the pumpkin) with a no-men-allowed policy. "It was great to have a place like that because it was assumed back then that a woman out on her own having a drink or a meal was, by definition, available or on the prowl."

The first week in July, Labrune presided over the committee that selects the lucky (VERY lucky) students admitted to France's film academy, FEMIS. (The admission procedure is so rigorous that it might almost be easier to be elected president of France after being accused of a sex-related felony in the U.S.). Many of the candidates are female.

"Today's young women strike me as being very strong, very determined and very secure in their femininity," says Labrune. "Many of my contemporaries have daughters who criticise our generation's efforts to assert ourselves through more masculine dress and attitudes and who think the whole student revolution of 1968 is a big bore. They take it for granted that they can now be taken seriously – but that progress was hard won. The young women applying to FEMIS are very smart and very talented."

Labrune adds, "I've always championed the idea of mental androgyny. Bodies have a sex but brains encompass both sexes. I like to investigate all the ways women can behave."

Of late, roughly 20 percent of the films made in France are directed by women, almost certainly the highest percentage of any film industry. And, thanks to inroads made by writer/directors like Jeanne Labrune, they're resolutely in charge of the films they direct – no "special treatment" required.