Private Lessons (1980) **
Excellent work, Sylvia Kristel! Most actresses would have been content to appear in just one of the skeeziest coming-of-age stories ever filmed, but you forged boldly onward to give us at least two. First came Julia, in which the randy father of a teenaged boy undertakes to rid the lad of his sexual hang-ups so that he’ll have the courage and self-assurance to pursue his deeper feelings for a close female friend (the Julia of the title). Dad’s strategy for effecting this is to bring both kids along when he and his mistress embark on a vacation in Italy, and to have his girlfriend seduce his son while he himself seduces Julia; with that pesky virginity out of the way, the two teens can fall in love free of any self-imposed pressure to get it all right the first time. Now Julia was made in West Germany, in 1974, so those who wish to can simply shake their heads and write it off as an artifact of a perverse foreign culture— “Dude! What the hell is wrong with German people?” No such excuses can be made for Private Lessons, though. Private Lessons was made in the good old U. S. of A., after the combined success of three Emmanuelle movies convinced domestic film producers that Kristel’s drawing power was more than a fluke of the short-lived porno-chic phenomenon. Kirstel began landing supporting parts in Hollywood productions during the late 70’s, but this was her first real starring role on this side of the Atlantic. It’s also a movie that could not possibly be made today.
The first scene makes Private Lessons look like a product of the uniquely weird early-80’s vogue for R-rated sex comedies aimed squarely at people who were officially too young to purchase a ticket. High school sophomores Philly (Eric Brown, of Waxwork and Rock-a-Die Baby) and Sherman (Patrick Piccininni) have snuck into the country club where the senior class is holding its big graduation party, with the aim of spying on pretty girls from the cover of the trees and bushes all over the grounds. They don’t have to wait too long before one punch-tipsy blonde (Mothers Against Drunk Driving and their allies in Congress wouldn’t succeed in bullying all 50 states into raising their drinking ages to 21 for several more years yet) leaps into the swimming pool, soaking every inch of her conveniently light-colored clothing to transparency. Faculty chaperone Miss Phipps (The Sister-in-Law’s Meredith Baer) pounces at once, ordering her to the bathhouse to dry off and get changed. Philly and Sherman take that as their cue to circle around to the bathhouse as well, in the hope of seeing even more than they already have. Miss Phipps catches them peering in through the bathhouse window, and although she proves unexpectedly sympathetic toward this pair of boobs who desire nothing more than to see a pair of boobs, that doesn’t mean she’s willing to look the other way while they do it. Philly and Sherman are rousted from the country club in short order.
Our first indication that Private Lessons is not going to proceed along quite the lines hinted at by the opening comes the next morning, when we get a look at the neighborhood where Philly and Sherman live. This is not the socioeconomic milieu of Porky’s, or even of The Hollywood Knights. In fact, it’s approximately the stratum where you’d expect to find a Sylvia Kristel character in one of her European movies. Both boys are the sons of zillionaires, attended by chauffeurs, housekeepers, gardeners, and the like, and living in houses that straddle the frontier between mansion and palace. Their fathers have them devoting their summer afternoons to the inevitable tennis lessons under the tutelage of ex-pro Jack Travis (Ed Begley Jr., from Diary of a Sex Addict and the Nastassja Kinski version of Cat People), even though neither one of them exhibits the slightest talent for the game. The garages in this neighborhood are more likely to hold an elongated Fleetwood Brougham limousine than a Country Squire station wagon. And I’m pretty sure you could have bought a Country Squire for the price of the stereo in Philly’s bedroom. Anyway, Philly’s father (Ron Foster, from House of the Damned and Ninja III: The Domination) is about to leave town for an extended business trip, and since the boy’s mother died when he was very, very young, that means Philly is going to be lord of the manor for a while. It also means that he’ll be left to his own devices in dealing with Lester the passive-aggressive chauffeur (Howard Hesseman, of Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo and Flight of the Navigator) and the newly hired housekeeper, Nicole Mallow. Nicole is not at all like the shriveled old bats who keep house for most of the kids Philly knows. She’s quite young, faintly glamorous, non-specifically European— and most of all, she’s Sylvia Kristel. Honestly, I can’t decide whether that makes Philly the luckiest teenaged boy in the universe, or condemns him to an unspeakable ordeal of priapic torment. He seems to regard it as rather an open question, too, and the one certain thing is that his endocrine system will allow him scarcely a moment’s peace with Nicole living just down the stairs from him.
Naturally, Nicole is the number-one topic of conversation between Philly and Sherman, with the boys endlessly dissecting her possible sexual habits and how they might reflect upon her character— and in a remarkable display of realism, the substance of their discussions invariably reveals that these two know exactly not one fucking thing about women. Nor does Philly initially make any real headway toward plugging the gaps in his knowledge, despite the zeal with which he throws himself into his efforts at ineffectually oblique snooping. Nicole, for her part, seems to like this haplessly inquisitive lad on whom she’s charged with attending, and to be more amused than anything else whenever she catches him ogling her while she sunbathes or trying to steal a glance up her skirt. In fact, after a while, she starts to encourage Philly’s investigations much more directly than Philly himself has the nerve to carry them out. Then one night, Nicole notices him peeping on her from the garden outside her room while she gets undressed for bed, and offers her most direct encouragement yet— she invites him in to watch at close quarters. Thus begins what must surely be the strangest fling Nicole has ever had, and what must just as surely be the strangest fling Philly will ever have. Their relationship is even more unorthodox than it looks, however, for it is a great deal less innocent than Philly believes. Nicole has actually been put up to the liaison by Lester, as the first stage in a baroque blackmail scheme of the sort that one sees only in erotic comedies. And given that Private Lessons is indeed an erotic comedy, it’s safe to predict the failure of Lester’s plot, in much the same way as Benito Varotto’s plot failed in The Sensuous Nurse.
It may not be obvious yet what would prevent Private Lessons from making it past the treatment stage in present-day Hollywood, so let me spell it out for you: Eric Brown and Patrick Piccininni really were sixteen years old when this movie was made. These days, just acknowledging that it’s normal, potentially healthy, and virtually inevitable in any case for adolescents to be sexually active is enough to get a fair-sized chunk of the moviegoing public bent out of shape. Doing so in a movie that features actual adolescents would be asking for a lot of trouble— just look at all the negative press and public outcry that confronted Kids— and focusing on an affair between a teenager and a mature adult would be almost completely beyond the pale, unless the producers were in a credible position to stick “From the classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov…” somewhere on the advertising materials. Private Lessons does all of the above, though, and it throws in a couple of pretty steamy softcore sex scenes between Sylvia Kristel and an actor who’s just barely old enough to drive. Honestly, I’m rather uncomfortable with that, despite what I might have implied a few sentences ago, and that discomfort makes it difficult for me to appreciate what merits this movie possesses. It’s one thing to have a positive attitude toward teen sexuality, but something else altogether to favor having it presented for the enjoyment of adults, with so thin a veil of simulation spread over it. Of course, my own age is almost certainly a factor here, and I wonder how differently I’d feel about Private Lessons if I had caught it on Showtime After Hours when I was no older than Philly myself.
Private Lessons does indeed have merits, you see, and not all of them require that the viewer share my ongoing infatuation with Sylvia Kristel. Some of the comedy works, especially when Philly and Nicole convince Jack Travis to pose as a police detective in the hope of panicking a confession out of Lester. The odd melding of American and European styles of sex farce is historically interesting, even if it often isn’t very successful. But primarily what Private Lessons has in its favor is the exceptional honesty with which it treats Philly and Sherman. The former is living what boys his age spend so much of their time fantasizing about, and he’s absolutely terrified of it for most of the film. He has no idea what’s allowed, what’s expected, what’s realistic, and most of all, he has no idea what these experiences he has with Nicole actually mean. At a stage of his emotional development when holding hands with a girl is a big deal, and when the default relationship model involves things like high school dances and splitting an ice cream soda at the local diner, Philly finds himself living with the object of his affections and entertaining matter-of-fact offers of casual sex. What little he knows about the workings of romance is obviously inapplicable, and he’s well aware of that— he just doesn’t have a clue what he’s supposed to do instead. Tellingly, and with the greatest positive impact on the film’s overall effectiveness, Philly’s efforts to do what he considers grown up and sophisticated accomplish nothing but to make him look even more like a kid, causing exactly the kind of humiliations that he and Nicole alike want so badly to avoid. As for Sherman, his tight relationship with Philly makes him the person to whom his friend instinctively turns for advice and guidance, but he can offer nothing in that department save the body of prejudices and misconceptions that usually pass for wisdom about sex and romance among adolescent males. There’s also a faint but completely plausible implication that Sherman wants his friend’s affair with the housekeeper to fail, as it threatens to push him to the sidelines of Philly’s life. Truth be told, there’s probably a decent, serious, non-exploitation film hiding somewhere inside Private Lessons, a sort of inverse Lolita focusing on the insecurities of youth rather than those of middle age. Who knows? Maybe a more sober treatment, without the silly blackmail plot and with the character psychology receiving as much emphasis as Sylvia Kristel’s tits, could avoid the ick factor that so hamstrings Private Lessons as it actually exists.