There is no doubt that Isabelle Huppert is an extraordinarily talented actress and a modern staple of French cinema. From her rendition as the sexually frustrated protagonist in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) to her Oscar-nominated performance as a rape victim seeking revenge in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), Huppert has a knack for bringing characters to life whose psychological states often envelope their entire being. Even when interpreting otherwise mundane characters, she brings a reserved eccentricity that is simultaneously confusing and mesmerizing. The lines are delivered as if she is indifferent to the final result, and yet there is something so genuine about the way she engages with her characters, as if there is little (if anything) separating her identity from the ones we see on screen. Her portrayal of an escort at the end of her rope in Special Treatment is no different. She seems nonchalant to the point of being absurd, indifferent to her client’s pleasure and her own pain. And yet, as is usually the case, the character is incredibly believable. Despite the degree to which she embraces her characters and exceeds the high bar that has been set for her, Special Treatment falters in its heavy-handed storytelling and lack of self-awareness.
Huppert plays Alice, an aging Parisian escort who has become disenchanted with the life she lives; the threats of violence from clients, the often disturbing roleplaying and sexual mind games, and the severe judgement from the rest of society all push Alice to despise the lifestyle that she feels too weak to escape from. She even seeks out the help of various therapists, only to be rejected and made to feel ashamed of her chosen path. Meanwhile, a psychoanalyst, Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners), experiences marital woes and becomes disconnected from his patients. When his marriage seems all but over, Xavier seeks out Alice’s services, drawing each character into the other’s world.
While the story is engaging and the performances admirable, there is almost no ambiguity in Special Treatment. The parallels drawn between a struggling psychoanalyst and escort are plain to see, fully displayed without any nuance or insightful exploration. Xavier plays the part that his patients wish him to play, becoming a mere caricature of an analyst to meet their expectations, while Alice dresses up as a school girl or a dominatrix to fulfill her clients’ every fantasy. This comparison sounds interesting on the surface, but it is never fully developed and doesn’t offer any extra insight into either profession. The film does provide an interesting glimpse into the life of a professional escort, but it is overshadowed by the frankly lackluster parallel between Alice and Xavier’s professional lives.
Special Treatment also suffers from an all-too-familiar story arc. When the film begins, and we are introduced to Huppert and Lanners’ respective characters, it seems as if it will develop into an introspective art film that allows the characters to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the plot is structured in a very deliberate and traditional fashion. Without giving too much away, it follows a very predictable hero’s journey, in which Alice and Xavier must encounter a variety of contrived life experiences to make them recognize their own strength and encourage them to reach their respective goals. Alice wants to escape the sex industry and lead a normal life free of shame, while Xavier wants to reconnect with his wife and revitalize his stale medical practice. If not for the vague, directionless dialogue and Huppert’s rather eccentric character, Special Treatment could be mistaken for any number of Hollywood character studies.
Despite its shortcomings, Special Treatment is actually a very engaging film. Thematically, it never quite hits the right tone to match the exemplary performances, and with better direction, it could have been a far superior film. Nonetheless, if you are a fan of Isabelle Huppert, or are simply looking for a film that gives a glimpse into the life of an escort, then Special Treatment is well worth your time. However, tread carefully, as it still gives a stylized and glamorized account of life as a Parisian escort, and tries much too hard to make us see the contrived similarities between therapist and sex worker.
Special Treatment is currently available to purchase or stream via Amazon Prime here.
Rating: ★★★ out of 5