TRAITEMENT DE CHOC (ALAIN JESSUA, 1973)
I first read about director Alain Jessua in FAB Press's Eyeball Compendium, in which he's described as the "Orson Welles of French cinema[...] he made a big splash, critically and commercially, with his first two features, but then seemed to lose his way and has never really fulfilled the promise he once showed." However, I of course derive much more pleasure out of Welle's later, less polished, less "canonical" films, so I made a mental note to check some Jessua films out.
Jessua is virtually forgotten in discussion of cinema today, and completely unknown in the US. His only film with a domestic DVD release is the 1984 horror-comedy Frankenstein 90, released by Anchor Bay around 2002, only to find itself once again quickly forgotten.
Traitement de Choc is most notorious (although, that's a relative word in this instance) for the fact that famed French actor Alain Delon appears in a rather extensive full frontal nude scene. That seems to be what it's initial selling point was, even being imported and released in the UK by Anthony Balch as Doctor in the Nude, which, in the context of the film itself, seems rather absurd, but hey, I'm sure it sold a few more tickets that way.
The film itself is a fairly conventional dramatic thriller, but it's moral positioning (done in a not-totally-heavy-handed sort of way) and genre elements make it stand out. The story follows Helene Massan's (Annie Giradot) visit at Dr. Deviler's (Delon) "rejuvenation" facility, a closed community which is three parts spa and one part mad-scientist laboratory. At the clinic, Helene encounters a group of vapid, rich men and women who convince her that after the treatment she will feel infinitely better, and that she will be "one of them." Being "one of them" seems to imply nothing more than lounging around a pool sunbathing, frolicking naked on the beach, and talking about how great it is to look and feel young. Nothing of substance constructs the group's relationship, but that's partly the point.
Eventually Helene begins to question some of the facility's techniques, especially as members of the Portuguese help she grows fond of repeatedly get sick and disappear. She later starts sleeping with Dr. Devilers and soon has access to some of the facility's secrets. However, nobody else seems to care about anything other than how they look.
Parts of the film found me thinking of Luigi Bazzoni's Footprints, as well as Robbe-Grillet's L'Immortelle, and occasionally Frans Zwartjes' Pentimento. The first two are evoked due to the first half of the film featuring the female protagonist wandering around by herself, interacting more with the architecture of the facility than the other patients. The latter comes from the interiors of the treatment facility: cold, unresponsive metal and international style white decorate the intensely modern buildings.
One of the more interesting elements of the film is Helene's fairly ambiguous moral stance. She's even asked, several times throughout the film, what is is exactly that she's after. She's obviously after some sort of answers, but she's not quite sure why. On one hand, she clearly feels bad that something is happening to the Portugeuse workmen--but on the other, she is insistent on recalling her physical and mental "youngness" (due only to the fact that she was recently dumped, for the first time ever, for a younger woman). The conflicting interests of Helene help to ease what appears to be Jessua's conviction of the bourgeoisie: he is not flat out condemning them in a heavy handed way (as many political genre films tend to do), rather, the protagonist (whom we inherently identify with as viewers) is placed in a position of confusion. By the end it becomes clear that the treatment is "questionable" (to say the least), but we also understand the desire for youth, a desire that undoubtedly exists in some shape or form in all human beings.
Helene's moral positioning is challenged even further as she takes a plane ride with Dr. Devilers, and he flat out tells her that he finds his patients ridiculous. He states that he would prefer to live with "the so-called savages," but his attempts to do just that have failed due to his outsider status: in this context, he is the other. And so he is now dependent on the wealth brought to him by his wealthy clients.
The climax of the film brings all of the sensational elements that one would hope for in a genre film, and Jessua's creativity doesn't disappoint. It's a fairly abrupt ending (in terms of narrativity), but a bizarre coda posits even the police as shallow, vanity obsessed individuals who place the self over the group, ending the film on a fairly depressing note.
Overall, the film isn't perfect, but is still a very worthwhile watch, if only for the fact to understand how you can make a subtle politically charged film that remains compulsively watchable and entertaining.