French drama Special Treatment draws a brazenly provocative parallel between the professions of psychiatry and prostitution. A high-end call girl (Isabelle Huppert) and a shrink (Bouli Lanners) both manage a stable of hourly clients. They spend these sessions delving into those clients’ secret desires and hidden thoughts. They put up an accommodating façade of carefully tailored interest, and in exchange make a hefty income allowing them to furnish their respective apartments with pretty things.
It’s too bad that after setting out a thesis so audacious—and so unflattering to the professions, though which is worse for the comparison may be a matter of personal preference—this film from Jeanne Labrune (1988’s Of Sand And Blood) paints itself into a corner, then softens its stance to awkwardly allow that the talking cure may have its merits, if mainly for those with severe mental illness. Huppert and Lanners are an interesting, prickly pair, no longer able to feel a connection to their clientele, but nevertheless addicted to their respective practices, always needing one last applicant to foot the bill for an antique statuette or chandelier. In the film’s best scene, both leads are dumped by a client—Lanners by a depressive who decides his therapist is even sadder than him, and Huppert by Lanners, who has set up a series of dates with her after separating from his wife. Neither was invested in the departing party, but both are devastated by the rejection, by the service they provide being found wanting.
Special Treatment loads its dice when suggesting analysis is often an unnecessary crutch—Lanners’ patients seem to be simply indulging neuroses, and when Huppert decides she too could benefit from seeing someone, the doctor she chooses turns her down for her own good, and because he’s busy working at a mental hospital with those who have, the film all but says aloud, “real problems.” The portrayal of Huppert’s call-girl life is more nuanced, though she also seems to be servicing an endless series of fetishes, in one scene finishing a cigarette before donning a ball gag, and in another dressing as a Japanese schoolgirl, loose socks and all. Huppert is always a pleasure on screen, and her performance as a competent, consummate professional is Special Treatment’s main draw. While what she does has chipped away at something within her, it’s not because of victimization or damage; instead, it’s the pressure of shaping herself to fit the desires of others that’s proven exhausting.