There's a promising movie in the middle of Special Treatment, a low-key comic drama that's at turns too programmatic in the beginning and too muddled in the end. Lead turns from the brilliant Isabelle Huppert and a very good Bouli Lanners tend to be the saving grace during the underwhelming spots; unsurprisingly, the film's at its best when the two are onscreen together.
Huppert stars as Alice Bergerac, a high-class Parisian prostitute willing to cater to her client's individual needs, whether that be a rote schoolgirl fantasy, buttoned-up housewife domination, S&M, or simple elegance. She requires a 10-session commitment, payment in advance, and little deviation from the program.
As the film begins, it sets up Alice's work as a blisteringly obvious analog to psychoanalysis, mostly signified by Xavier Demestre (Lanners), a well-paid, well-known therapist. Sequential editing makes the parallels clear -- both jobs are driven by the almighty dollar and both practitioners scratch a surface itch without treating any kind of root cause. This is blunt storytelling, but the implication that psychiatrists might be as big of whores as, well, whores is a potentially fascinating premise.
The film never really makes good on this apparent notion, but the second act is solid nevertheless. Frustrated by his crumbling marriage and some unresponsive patients, Xavier seeks out the services of Alice, just as a violent encounter with a patron has left her shaken. The pair's relationship allows both Huppert and Lanners to shine as the interaction evolves from a transaction with the façade of intimacy to actual personal connection. Now, the john falling for his hooker (and vice versa) trope is hardly original, but the couple's tentative trust is seemingly something other than romantic -- their corresponding vulnerabilities match up just right.
Huppert is perfect for this part, all confident sexual bravado on the outside with layers of uncertainty underneath -- layers that she only allows the briefest of glimpses at. Unfortunately, the screenplay lets her down; in her journey out of prostitution, she decides therapy is the necessary course of action, and the film assigns the character a fundamental weakness not present before.
Special Treatment purports to conflate the worlds of prostitution and psychotherapy, but in the end, one comes out cleanly as the legitimate practice and all ambivalence is washed away.
The First Run Features DVD of Special Treatment includes a text interview with director Jeanne Labrune on the disc (please DVD distributors, put this kind of stuff in an insert; no one wants to read large chunks of text on a TV screen) along with several trailers for other First Run releases.