Benoît Jacquot’s The School of Flesh ( L’École de la Chair ), from a screenplay by Jacques Fieschi, based on the novel by Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), contains, among many other treasures, the most exquisitely accomplished and subtly nuanced performance of Isabelle Huppert’s illustrious career. Her Dominique in The School of Flesh dominates almost every frame of a film in which as a middle-aged, divorced, childless woman on the make for a bisexual young bartender (Vincent Martinez) working in a gay bar, she might be expected to wind up in whimpering, self-pitying despair over unrequited passion.
No such fate befalls Dominique because she is the product of a cinematic culture which, unlike our own, never tires of singing the praises of older women. Even in Hollywood’s supposed good old days of Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve (both 1950), such gifted and worldly directors as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz could not refrain from making the Norma Desmond of 53-year-old Gloria Swanson and the Margo Channing of 42-year-old Bette Davis pitiable supplicants in the rivalries of love with the younger and more succulent female flesh of 22-year-old Nancy Olson in Sunset and 27-year-old Anne Baxter in Eve.
Actually, the Dominique of the 44-year-old Ms. Huppert is closer to the triumphant imperiousness of the Alexandra Del Lago of 38-year-old Geraldine Page in Richard Brooks and Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). (Ironically, Ms. Page was only one year older than Paul Newman, who played her gigolo, Chance Wayne, but so it has gone in double-standard, sexist-calendar Hollywood from way back in the days of D.W. Griffith’s underage nymphets.)
The Mishima novel on which The School of Flesh is based has never been translated into English, but it reportedly concerns a trio of disillusioned ex-wives on the prowl for new sexual adventures in post-World War II, demoralized Japan. Director Jacquot and screenwriter Fieschi have transposed the action to a contemporary abstractly upscale Paris in which Mishima’s fatal malaise about his society of a half-century ago is translated into an elliptical Parisian fable. They have also inverted the roles for Ms. Huppert’s sugar-daddy Dominique to Mr. Martinez’s not-so-sweet young thing Quentin. The best things in the film, however, are the fascinating variations on the theme.
Dominique reveals herself more to peripheral acquaintances than to her coldly secretive lover. Her female drinking buddy (Danièle Dubroux) serves as a combined bemused bystander and cheerleader. A transvestite ex-lover of Quentin and new-found friend of Dominique, Vincent Lindon’s Chris, promotes both the romance and Dominique’s later desire for revenge, while one of Quentin’s older ex-male lovers, a learned lawyer and academic named Soukaz (François Berléand), enjoys the sort of comparing-notes relationship with Dominique that was almost completely lacking between the Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson characters over their shared passion for the bisexual Murray Head character in John Schlesinger and Penelope Gilliatt’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971).
Mr. Jacquot has said of his luminous leading lady: “There are many great actresses, but among them, Isabelle is, for me, the only one who knows how to show the maximum amount of vital information with the minimum amount of effects. It’s more than a technique, it’s an art, and I wanted to make a film around her art.” Similarly, Mr. Jacquot plays against the lurid sensuality of his subject, by investing the silences of the characters with a cryptic message of their inevitable rupture.
But when the moment comes in an almost farcical manner, Ms. Huppert endows Dominique with such a dazzling variety of ironic expressions and nonexpressions that what could have turned banal and sordid in the trajectory of the relationship becomes high, understated comedy, while still being poignant pathos.
When Quentin finally betrays Dominique with the daughter of her old friend, Madame Thorpe (Marthe Keller), the resultant confusion enables Dominique to find at long last a path to restoring her sanity and social equilibrium. It is this unyielding rationality that may make The School of Flesh somewhat disconcerting to audiences conditioned to acres of flesh and gallons of tears in the demonstration of a perverse attraction between youth and middle age. Mr. Jacquot is far from ascetic in the classroom of carnality, but he is clearly more interested in what is to be found far under the skin in the hearts and souls and minds of the characters.
In the end, nothing and no one is reduced to the formulaic requirements of a genre. Dominique seeks knowledge of another human being to help understand her own feelings. Quentin resists being charming or sincere or even attentive for fear of becoming boring and predictable enough to be easily abandoned. When so much mature talent is being wasted and underutilized in the Hollywood mainstream, it is positively exhilarating to watch Ms. Huppert enliven the new year with her greatest performance.
Conceiving Ada : Technophobe’s Nightmare
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Conceiving Ada , from a screenplay by Ms. Leeson and Eileen Jones, is difficult for a lazily linear review to encompass. Consider Ms. Leeson’s detailed description in the profuse program notes:
“Sometimes known as ‘the mother of all programmers,’ Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, wrote what is now known as the first computer language and predicted its use in music, poetry and art. Born a female original thinker in the Victorian era, Ada’s passions and perversions forced her to live a double life. The duality of her existence-mother/ visionary, lover/ fiercely independent thinker, wife/ schemer-is acknowledged in the film by weaving a narrative that references the dual strands of the DNA molecule.”
Therefore, the notes say, Conceiving Ada is structured around the idea of a double helix. The process of how DNA strands cause genetic memory to weave through four generations is cryptically embedded into the story. Every scene was structured and shot using a DNA image for actors, placement and camera movement.
Ms. Leeson, a professor of art at the University of California, Davis, is the author of Clicking In: Hotlinks to a Digital Culture , published by Bay Press. She has had more than 200 exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the world and is an accomplished interactive artist.
Clearly, Ms. Leeson is on the cutting edge of mixed media expression, of which I know so little that I cannot properly evaluate her place in comparatively conventional cinema. What Ms. Leeson considers as narrative is a series of imaginary ventures into a mystic cyberspace linking her conscious avant-garde feminist sensibility with the unconscious avant-garde feminism of her Victorian predecessor, Ada Byron King, the daughter of Lord Byron, and reputedly the first computer programmer. At least I assume that Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany) is Ms. Leeson’s fictional alter ego seeking to communicate with the prophetess Ada (Tilda Swinton).
Ms. Swinton is not without iconic interest as the poster female of avant-garde feminism ever since her tour-de-force with the androgynous Orlando (1993) of Sally Potter and Virginia Woolf. It is also somewhat unnerving to see the late Timothy Leary as a ghostly manifestation giving guidance to Emmy Coer in her life-threatening and mind-blowing quest for Ada. I recall Leary, who died shortly after he appeared in Conceiving Ada , lecturing in the mid-60’s to a skeptical audience at the School of Visual Arts with slides of artworks created under the influence of LSD, or was it one of his authorized disciples, I forget. But I do remember spending many hours through the 60’s and 70’s looking at what was supposed to be the future, but wasn’t, at least not for me.
As drama, Conceiving Ada is nonexistent. As narrative, it is tediously quarrelsome. As cinema, it is too cluttered with self-important visual processes that seem intended more to intimidate an audience than to persuade or seduce it. There is no magic, only a would-be magician’s mechanical gestures and flourishes. It is not a breakthrough film in any way I can discern, and it does not generate any feelings I can recognize. Yet, it is worth considering as the work of a dedicated artist who is taken seriously by people who know more about the vast and growing field of personal and avant-garde video and multimedia creations than I ever will.
Dramatic narrative is now and always has been my main game, and if the cinema ever abandoned it in the name of purity or progress, I would give up film and return to the page and the stage with words, words, words and actors, actors, actors, and stories, stories, stories. Of course, my abstinence from the advanced technology of communication costs me very little inasmuch as I have resisted even all the blandishments of automatic teller machines so I can continue exchanging pleasantries with a dwindling number of human bank tellers. Technophobia forever, is my motto.