Though well constructed and skilfully directed, Private Lessons is a thoroughly unsettling film.
Jonas is an up and coming tennis pro but is failing miserably at school. When he’s told that he won’t be allowed to repeat his year again, the stress starts affecting his game. With absent parents, he’s unofficially adopted by a group of thirty-somethings who seem to enjoy hanging out with him. They soon agree to help with his homework, but their interest and support also extends to his private life, and this is the aspect of the film that is more than a little distressing for the viewer.
At first I naïvely thought that his older friends’ rather blatant discussions about Jonas’ lack of sexual experience to be an example of European familiarity – for instance, the men kiss each others’ cheeks in greeting, something that’d never happen amongst their Australian equivalents. But then they begin to take on a more persuasive role. Soon they’re giving him unwarranted advice about his relationship with his girlfriend Delphine, and offering him practical ‘training sessions’ and … eugh. *shivers*
It’s strange, because I could get behind a film like The War Zone, which featured some truly grisly sexual subject matter, yet Private Lessons leaves me feeling dirty. It has something to do with the subliminal effect that the trio have on Jonas (it’s abuse, really). They’re always delivering their advice in an upbeat, friendly manner, even when they’re drilling directly into his insecurities.
This isn’t the sort of film to give the audience an easy way out. The raunchy scenes are tainted with the unpleasant knowledge of the negative consequences, and Jonas seems to have neither the will nor the inclination to break free of the group. To make matters worse, they truly seem unaware of the damage they’re causing. I kept wondering if this was all part of some grand scheme, but then things start to fall apart for them, also.
The performances are great, but it’s the overall tone of the piece that got to me. Halfway through, as the trio delivered yet another piece of bullshit advice masquerading as words of wisdom, I wanted to throw something at the screen. Maybe this was the writers’ intention, I’m not sure. It is certainly a film that challenges the viewer, and there’s an atmosphere of sociable nihilism that is rather unique. I just didn’t enjoy it.