Lady of the Night

Isabelle Huppert Plays a Call Girl

In ‘Special Treatment,’ the French actress takes on a challenging new role.

08.26.11 3:20 AM ET

In Special Treatment, a darkly entertaining film starring Isabelle Huppert, the famously enigmatic cinema icon plays a neurotic Paris call girl, Alice, who offers artisanal role-play sessions to a variety of men, including Xavier, the bumbling Lacanian psychoanalyst destined to change her life.

Special Treatment, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, shows how far we’ve come from the era when shrinks were godlike saviors preaching conformity to the deviants; and prostitutes, like gay people, were to be cured. (For a taste of pre-enlightenment, check out the recently remastered Girl of the Night, based on a pop psychoanalyst’s bestselling study of 1950s call girls.)

Shrinks today are more like angels than gods, and Special Treatment is filled with sly messages—and messengers. Director Jeanne Labrune, working with Huppert for the first time, treats Alice the prostitute and Xavier the shrink (played by Bouli Lanners) as anxiety-ridden entrepreneurs with similar hobbies and problems, collecting household curios, facing similar occupational hazards. Working at home is deceptively easy:  Xavier’s marriage has been poisoned by a never-ending cycle of affluent obsessives and neurotics, while Alice (who refuses to work in a brothel with her buddy Juliette) is physically endangered.

In one riveting scene, she pretends to be an abused housewife in curlers rather than the independent working woman she truly is. Special Treatment is savvier than many films in presenting this toxic client as the turning point for Alice. The imagined impotence of the 1950s housewife turns out to be more dangerous than the ball gag or leather restraints used by another fetish client.

When Alice asks Xavier to help her find a therapist, he sends her to Pierre, a colleague he barely knows. Pierre (played by Richard Debuisne who co-authored the screenplay with Labrune) turns her down because, unlike Xavier, he prefers working with the most hardcore mental patients.

I spoke to Isabelle Huppert  a few days after she received the Locarno Film Festival’s Excellence Award. What did she learn from Labrune about the parallels between psychotherapy and prostitution?

As an actor, Huppert was attracted to Alice’s scattered personalities.  “Sometimes you’re a Japanese manga schoolgirl or a 1950s housewife. You don’t know who you are,” Huppert told me, though she doesn’t claim to have suffered personally in that respect. “I was lucky enough to know very young what I wanted to do and I was lucky enough to do it with success from the start.”

Perhaps you have to be that solid internally to experiment successfully with what Huppert calls “that border between insanity and suffering, something I’ve experienced in so many of my movies.”

Special Treatment questions “all the borders between established people and nonestablished people,” Huppert explains. “The prostitute is supposed to be the lost person and Xavier’s supposed to be the one who is OK. The psychoanalyst is supposed to personify a good mental state. And yet we see two people who equally have problems. No matter where you are on the social scale, it’s not always the one you believe to be most in control who is really in control. We are all equally healthy or sick. There is no ‘normality on one side and abnormality on the other,’” she adds.

Huppert won Best Actress at Cannes in 1978 for playing an actual1930s schoolgirl prostitute in Claude Chabrol’s Violette Nozière, and she is equally convincing as a grown-up prostitute transformed by schoolgirl drag. She perfectly captures the jaunty, businesslike hooker enjoying the absurd side of her job.

“Pretending to be a little girl, especially next to this big fat man, is cruel and embarrassing. Just putting these two images next to one another, you come up with something quite strong and disturbing,” she says.

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Although it’s never spelled out, we can’t help wondering if Alice has potential as a  psychotherapist when Pierre observes her in conversation with an asylum patient.

“Alice needs help, but Pierre helps her by refusing to help her,” Huppert says. “He treats her like a human being, like a responsible person.”

Searching for a new job is, for many prostitutes, as scary and uncertain as any other person’s career transition. Unless you believe selling sex is an exotic and sick behavior, a myth some shrinks are happy to promote for their own ends. Pierre, detecting the bottom line in this hypocrisy, abstains from exploiting Alice’s suppressed shame.

Huppert, who won Best Actress at Cannes a second time for The Piano Teacher in 2001, has appeared in more than 100 film and TV roles. Only a handful of these involve her in prostitution, but each new interpretation has been a little different from the last.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1980 experiment Every Man for Himself prostitution “is a way to talk about people going kind of random in their lives,” she says. There she appeared as a cynical upstart hooker getting spanked for holding out on her pimp.

Just one year later, she was in Lady of the Camellias, Mauro Bolognini’s gorgeous period piece about  the pubescent country girl, Alphonsine Plessis, who later inspired the French classic novel Camille, and a Verdi opera, La Traviata.

“Even though the movie was beautiful to look at, it was intended to be the true story of Alphonsine, whose character has been much more enhanced in the Dumas novel and in the opera. The idea was to do the true story of this little peasant girl whose father was desperately trying to make a great Parisian lady out of her.”

Violette Nozière was roughly the same age as young Alphonsine—and just as real--but Violette’s a different kind of film because, Huppert points out, “she was always a real character. She wasn’t made into a literary or musical heroine.”

Actress Isabelle Huppert arrives for the screening of The Tree of Life at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Monday, May 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)

Joel Ryan

For homicidal Violette, being a part-time hooker was a form of rebellion. Huppert cheerfully calls her “a more complex ambivalent character than Alphonsine. A little girl with terribly negative feelings toward her parents.”

You may have seen Huppert in Ghost River, as high-heeled hobo Sylvia, a deadbeat mom  who can barely acknowledge the daughter who saves her life. Or playing the bordello madam Ella Watson in Heaven’s Gate.

But the Huppert character Alice most resembles isn’t a sex worker at all.

It’s Dominique in School of Flesh, the divorced fashion exec who meets a bisexual hustler, pays him for sex and tries to live with him. Both films are set in the streets and bedrooms of Paris, but the two characters have more than geography in common.

“You have a hard time trying to define yourself as a woman, as a human being, trying to be true to yourself. The two characters carry a loneliness, a secret quest,” Huppert told me.

Refusing to discuss prostitution outside the context of her films, Huppert is the antidote to well-meaning movie actors who latch onto philanthropic fads, the latest of which is treating sex workers like baby seals. Huppert’s performance in Special Treament sends a workmanlike reminder to any film actor who might be seduced into attacking the sex industry.

Stick to your craft, which is to say, interpreting other people’s problems on screen.