Pupil (L’eleve) (1996): Olivier Schatzky’s Adaptation of Henry James’ Story

(French Period Drama color)

Montreal World Film Festival (Competing), Aug 24, 1996–Olivier Schatzky’s The Pupil, based on Henry James’ story, is a decorative costume drama about the complex relationship–and turbulent lives–of a repressed instructor and his student at turn-of-the-century Europe.

The Pupil is not the best of its breed–literary cinema–but it has enough going for it to warrantee a theatrical release in major urban centers, where it’s likely to be embraced by audiences who have supported the Merchant-Ivory and the recent Jane Austen adaptations.

Now that Jane Austen’s literary oeuvre is all but exhausted by fillmmakers, it may be the turn of Henry James to savor wide cinematic appeal. With a successful revival of The Heiress on Broadway last year, and the eagerly-awaited Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady coming out next month, James is enjoying sort of a comeback, after the cycle of Merchant-Ivory film productions (The Europeans, The Bostonians) in the late 70s and early 80s.
Tale begins with an aristocratic family hiring Julien (Vincent Cassel), a 25-year old instructor with no experience, to tutor their bright and precocious teenaged son, Morgan (Caspar Salmon). The first sessions are tentative with Julien and Morgan trying hard to figure out–and control–each other. What’s beyond doubt, however, is the strong emotional rapport the two establish from their very first encounter.

It’s as much a learning process for Julien as it is for Morgan, for he gradually discovers that, despite outward appearances that indicate wealth, the family is financially ruined–and morally bankrupt. Both parents go to extreme pains to keep up a facade of respectability, while in actuality depending on the kindness of various acquaintances for a place to stay, as they are being evicted from one house after another. It takes some time for Julien to realize that he will never get paid for his services and that he’s being manipulated by the parents in their attempt to come to terms with their son’s impending death.

Set in l897, in a decadent European society soon to be shattered by WWI, Schatzky and co-writer Eve Deboise capture the empty, both amoral and immoral, lifestyle of a social class on the verge of extinction. Story then jumps ahead to a decade later, when the family relocates to Russia, where it desperately tries to hang onto their old upper-class manners of elaborate dinners and elegant costume balls.

Like most of James’ work, tale is dark and ironic in its insights on family power games, specifically the transformation of a guileless tutor who’s initially more innocent and childish than his smart 12-year-old pupil. But Schatzky seems to be more intrigued by the evolving intimacy between tutor and pupil, structuring his movie as a love story. Here and there, helmer entertains some interesting notions about the ambiguous, blurry line that separates childhood from adulthood, a perennial theme in French cinema that stays in the periphery here.

Beautifully shot, with images that are more pretty than illuminating, The Pupil epitomizes the old French Tradition of Quality, a style that four decades ago provided the main impetus for Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and others to launch the New Wave. Both literary and literal-minded, The Pupil contains a few passages where the dialogue is lively, the humor ironic, and sentiment affecting. Rest of the film consists of lengthy tableaux, exquisite to look at though not exactly vivant. Problem is, the movie runs about half an hour after its story is over, suggesting that a slender narrative has been stretched to the limit.

Yet The Pupil is not without its compensating virtues. The two lead actors are arguably pic’s most solid and enjoyable element. Salmon renders an extraordinarily intuitive performance as Morgan, a child who knows too much about life for his own good. He’s well supported by Cassel, as the sensitive but shy tutor, torn between the dictates of his heart and the harsh necessity of making a living.

Production values are impeccable, with the grandeur–but not poignancy–of Visconti’s epic style in Death in Venice, which is set in the same historical era and deals with similar concerns.