A portrait of gender- and job-transcending ennui, Special Treatment paints a vulgar picture of two apparently interwoven professions: prostitutes and shrinks. On one end of the spectrum is Alice (Isabelle Huppert), a middle-aged “specialist” who caters to the upper crest of Parisian society; the other is seen through Xavier (Bouli Lanners), a psychoanalyst whose marriage is on the rocks. Their lives are initially presented as parallel narratives, but of course the two have more in common than one would expect. These similarities at first center around their professional woes (the growing unease with which Alice turns tricks, in addition to being increasingly reminiscent of Jean Dielman, mirrors Xavier’s thousand-yard stare as he silently listens to his patients ramble on), but gradually seep into other aspects of the characters’ lives. The point at which their lives intersect is, naturally, where the plot thickens, and it’s here that Special Treatment‘s machinations come into focus: Xavier, as dissatisfied with his marriage as he clearly is with his job, seeks out Alice not only toward the end of pleasure, but, more fundamentally, a temporary escape from the drudgeries of his day-to-day existence. Problem is that she’s ultimately too mired in her own unhappiness to distract anyone else from theirs. What results is a veritable sparring match of dissatisfaction that would almost seem Dickensian were it not for the fact that everyone involved is so well-off; think of it as A Tale of One City focusing solely on the worst of times.
Despite its flaws, the film is surprisingly atmospheric at times. Its increasingly bizarre happenings (an unexplained invitation to a secluded sex club; a man who appears at Xavier’s door with a papal hat, having mistaken him for the cardinal’s secretary), which seem to be linked to a cherubic statue Xavier receives (but doesn’t win) at an auction, point toward a diverse array of influences. These include not only Jean Dielman, but momentary flourishes that bring to mind Lost Highway and even Eyes Wide Shut. Special Treatment isn’t on anywhere near the same level as any of these apparent forebears, but neither does it entirely squander their stylistic influence. By merely bringing them to mind, it uses the look and feel of these altogether disturbing films as a means of underscoring the angst that courses throughout its own, which is useful in the way it helps make up for the film’s lack of emotional footing but damning in that it draws attention to it.
Special Treatment purports to provide a darkly intimate look at Alice’s internal world. But with a protagonist who only late in the game renounces her breezy view of a necessarily rarefied profession, we’re rarely given access to its inner workings or, worse still, those of Alice herself. She’s seen, at various points, dressed up as an anime-inspired schoolgirl, a dominatrix, and a doting housewife (each of which involves a wig of varying length and color), pointing not only toward the necessity of putting on multiple faces throughout the day, but, indeed, the tendency of the wearer to forget which is her own. “But…is it you?” Xavier asks Alice upon first meeting her; he’s unsure whether he’s talking to the character or the woman behind it. We’re often left asking the same question, only not in a way that highlights some larger truth about our heroine. All the costume changes in the world can’t change the fact that, though intriguing, Alice—and the story revolving around her—is thinly sketched and not as tell-tale as it could or should be. At the same time, much of the intrigue is owed to our not fully understanding what we’ve seen. Like an only partially satiated client, we’re left wanting more.