Student Services (Mes chères etudes)

France (2010) Dir. Emmanuelle Bercot

Laura (Déborah François) is student with dreams of becoming an interpreter but like many young people in further education she has her debts, not helped by her lazy boyfriend Manu (Benjamin Siksou) who demand she pays her way without contributing himself. Her parents can’t help and the wage from her call centre job is barely sufficient either so Laura searches the internet for a second job. She stumbles across a personal services message board and responds to message from a fifty something man named Joe (Alain Cauchi) who offers 70 euros an hour for tenderness. Laura decides to make this a one off deal but the lure of making easy money is too great and soon she is engaging with other clients, but all the money in the world doesn’t make it any easier for her.

It’s the not the first time a film has been made on this subject (A Call Girl and Jeune & Joilet are reviewed on this site) and it won’t be the last but what makes this film stand out is that is based on the alleged true memoirs of an anonymous teenage prostitute known only as Laura M, an publication that caused a scandal in its native France. The other thing about might surprise many is that it was in fact a TV movie in France – something the occasionally explicit material belies (although anyone who has seen their gritty TV crime dramas like Spiral or Braquo will know their boundaries are clearly more flexible than ours).

Being a dramatisation we are expected to make allowances for many of the situations that arise in this film, some of which appear to be a little too fanciful. This accusation is largely aimed at the character of Laura herself, whose borderline poverty, while plausible, feels a little exaggerated solely to facilitate Laura’s entry into the world of escorting and prostitution. We meet her first of all fainting during a lecture after which she is encouraged by school advisor to sue her parents for not helping out financially but Laura refuses as they are just as poor as she is. With Manu complaining over her stealing a slice of ham then demanding her half of the rent Laura is cajoled into finding a second job.

As ever the internet pages where she somehow finds the personal services ads among the regular babysitting type jobs are brightly coloured and full of lively graphics, which is out first step away from reality. Nervously Laura contacts Joe, who is quick to respond (another film cliché that doesn’t ring true) and soon has Laura hooked and booked for a meeting. Joe’s thing is fantasy play acting. While he promises no sex but tenderness, Laura is asked to strip off right away and excite him; she fails at this but Joe is happy anyway. Laura takes his money and runs away, swearing no more but earning enough for her first meal in a while puts a smile on her face and gives her false confidence which is quickly eroded with her continuing experiences.

The familiar pattern of Laura being a hit with every man she meets and thus recommended to friends for modelling jobs and the like ensues, each time supposedly the last  but it never is. Laura even meets a guy named Benjamin (Mathieu Demy), a thirty year old slacker who accepts Laura and her job, claiming no jealousy and reassuring her she is not a whore, while being the only one who gives her genuine sexual pleasure but predictably this doesn’t run a smooth as hoped with Laura’s work eventually and understandably getting in the way.

If ever there was a difficult subject for a filmmaker and actor to make a character sympathetic and bring some poignancy and emotional connection with their situation then prostitution must rank highly on the list. Rather surprisingly director Emmanuelle Bercot doesn’t seem to bring much of a female perspective to the film, overloading it with plenty of sex scenes – a couple quite deviant – while leading lady Déborah François is naked for a good portion of her screen time. There isn’t much sensuality to the scenes (not that there is likely to be under the circumstances) and there is a pervasive sense of deliberate titillation to keep the male viewers happy.

This might be Bercot wanting to approach her subject head on with little feminine compassion or sugar coating, although evidence that this was a concerned can be found in the musical soundtrack which features some cheesy ballads and fluffy pop amongst the occasional raunchy rock track. Bercot does however make sure we know that men are all pigs who use women, especially those who sell themselves, making Benjamin’s initial acceptance and gallantry a short lived rarity. Bercot’s overall direction is assured and while limited by the conventions of TV filming over theatrical, she is able to tell a decent well paced yarn.

Déborah Françoisis actually a good choice for the role of Laura, possessing as she does an attractive enough face to be both “girl next door” ordinary and unattainably gorgeous. She throws herself into the role with the requisite abandon for such an explicit role, whilst subtly conveying the internal struggles with the life decisions. Her first time with Joe is a nuanced essaying of someone out of their depth, complimented by her physical reactions to the demands of her clients. The only flaw in her performance is that Laura seems to flit from pleased with herself to disgusted with such regularity that one is unable to fully comprehend her mindset attitude of the moment.

The issues depicted in Student Services are unlikely to be successfully relayed with any credibility via the medium of film, so Bercot has opted for an effective if slightly superficial wake-up call to engage us to recognise the problems and fallout of student prostitution.