Prostitution and psychiatry both cater to a privileged class, where a considerable sum of cash is handed over to a specialist for one hour of release. Over the course of numerous sessions, one’s mental health or sexual desire may be sufficiently restored to its former levels. But it takes time. And it takes the right specialist. The client understands that remedy isn’t going to happen overnight, but there remains the dependable oxytocin rush of each discrete session. The client can count on trusting the psychiatrist to unload emotional catharsis or trust the prostitute to fire his load into the appropriate orifice and with the appropriate satisfaction. Both professions involve finding a specialist who must remain objective. The psychiatrist or the prostitute may “care” for the client in a purely professional way, so long as the client understands that he is merely one of many. So there’s no need for the client to consider his quirks or his perversions and his hangups especially special. So although the client’s ego (and his wallet) may be tinkered with during release, it is suggested that the client check his hubris at the door. The specialist has seen it all. In both cases, there may be a certain shame when confessing to certain friends that the client is seeing someone to fix something vital. Sometimes, when you run into a client just before one of these sessions, the client will have a worried and somewhat nervous expression on his face, much like an inexperienced actor enlisted at the last minute to appear in a community theater production. He just wants to get it over with. So the only way for the client to cure his unsated need is to see the specialist again. It’s always best to call ahead, even though last-minute appointments are dicey.
Given these parallels, it’s a wonder that a film like Jeanne Labrune’s Special Treatment didn’t come earlier. We might look to Alan J. Pakula’s Klute as one of the first films depicting a prostitute confessing how much she wants to leave the business to a psychiatrist, and 1987’s Nuts, which features Barbra Streisand as a high-class callgirl who must prove her sanity. But both films involved murder, suggesting that the simultaneous moral investigation of psychiatry and prostitution inevitably led one into gripping pulp narrative. (It’s worth noting that Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, which didn’t deal with psychiatrists but certainly looked into dormant bourgeois desires and prostitution, also involved murder.)
It was surprising to discover that nobody dies in Special Treatment, although someone does pull a knife. Labrune’s film isn’t especially interested in depicting the act of congress, suggesting a firm commitment to the more pivotal actions occurring just before release. This refreshingly adult (as opposed to, ahem, adult) approach gives Labrune liberty to depict the two practices as procedure rather than prescription, dutiful vocation rather than spiritual translocation. We see numerous scenes of 43-year-old, high-class prostitute Alice Bergerac (Isabelle Huppert), committed to schoolgirl fantasies with one client (even recommending somebody younger when his rocks prove less fluid than anticipated) and submissive housewife with another, with lengthy stretches of Alice setting up her room in advance or catching a cigarette between johns. This boredom of routine can’t be perceived by Alice’s clients. Likewise, as the camera cranes in close on his face, the psychiatrist Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners) couldn’t be more disinterested with the visceral confessions of his clients — even when they are men who dress up in women’s clothes and make efforts to flirt with him. So when the emotionally crippled Xavier expresses a desire to leave his wife, one can’t help but feel that he’s more than a little of a shit.
But since Alice shares some of these professional qualities, why then did I feel more sympathetic towards her? The film does stack the deck towards Alice by having a particularly creepy client pull some sleazy moves on her and by having a mentally disabled man follow her near the end of the film. But is Alice’s own indecision — her desire to seek help without much of a plan — any worse than Xavier’s failure to state any specific ideas about what he wants when he sets up a preliminary consultation appointment with her?
Part of me wished the film didn’t play into conventions and ask me to choose sides like this. If Alice’s character had been a little less wholesome and a little less victimized, then this perilous proximity to the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope might have been avoided. By giving Alice and Xavier too many eccentric clients, the film detracts from its exploration of midlife ennui. Special Treatment is better when the people who Alice and Xavier have affected stand up and respond to their actions. When one of Xavier’s clients calls him out on his lack of professionalism and announces that he’s not coming back, it’s fascinating to see how this client has his life together (and his ability to recover) more than Xavier.
The film is somewhat entertaining, but its slow spots had me wondering what might happen if Labrune had thrown in a murder. Sure, it would have cheapened the film. On the other hand, if Alice and Xavier had been presented as more emotionally complex individuals, Special Treatment might have been, well, more special.