Dir: Joachim Lafosse. Belgium-France. 2008. 105mins.
Reunited with the same co-writer, the same crew and many of the same themes he explored in his 2006 Venice competion entry Private Property (Nue Propriete), buzzy Belgian auteur Joaquim Lafosse crafts another original, disturbing work which fails however to scale the same dramatic heights as that impressively tight chamber piece.
Once again, volatile male adolescence and adult irresponsibility react together in a claustrophobic hothouse environment. But here the story of the unhealthy relationship that develops between a sixteen-year-old boy and the thirty-something family friend who agrees to tutor him through his school-leaving exams is less controlled, both visually and structurally; it also feels ethically muddy in its half-fascinated, half-condemnatory portrayal of what in most people’s books would count as sexual abuse of a minor.
This said, it’s not necesarilly a less commercial film; although uncomfortable to watch at times, it emerges in the end as a coming-of-age fable with an almost happy ending, and there are moments of dour comedy. The frank sex-talk and sexual activity that peppers the film will stir debate and media interest, along the lines of Ma Mere - though it should do so without censorship problems in most territories, as although the adult-adolescent couplings here are upfront enough to disturb, the camera knows its limits.
Jonas (Bloquet) is an athletic and not particularly academic sixteen-year-old schoolboy who wants to become a tennis pro. But he doesn’t quite have what it takes; and in the meantime, his school reports are disastrous. With divorced parents and a mother who spends most of her time away in the south of France, Jonas is adopted by a trio of older friends whose realtionship with each other, and with Jonas, is at first left deliberately unclear. One, the affable Pierre (Zaccai), takes Jonas’ education in hand, coaching him as an outside student for the all-important school-leaving exam. But the teacher-pupil relationship is complicated by a climate of growing sexual complicity, which is encouraged by another adult couple with an open rapport, Pierre’s friends’ Didier (Renier) and Pascale (Coesens).
Private Pupil is about various brands of immaturity. The three adults that act as Jonas’ surrogate parents treat his sexual education as a kind of game, though Jonas is clearly embarrassed by their frankness. His own immaturity consists in trying to act too grown-up, thus failing tell his irresponsible elders where to get off (something that Jonas’ more self-assured girlfriend, Delphine, doesn’t hesitate to do). As the game becomes more disturbing, interior scenes dominate and DoP Hachame Alaouie’s palette veers into darker territory.
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