Private Lessons (1981)
Director: Alan Myerson
Writer: Dan Greenburg
First I’d like to set aside, for the moment, the question of whether Private Lessons depicts 1) amusing Euro-style bedroom farce or 2) child rape. People still argue this dichotomy every day in the wilds of the Internet, and the movie was released 30 years ago. Harmless kitsch or kiddie porn? I can’t pretend to settle this to everyone’s satisfaction, but read on and we’ll see what we can do.
So little happens that the plot is easy to summarize. Young Phillip Fillmore (played by young Eric Brown) is left alone with the domestic staff when his father goes off on a business trip. Little does he know that chauffeur Lester Lewis (a bewigged Johnny Fever) has hatched a plot with the housekeeper Nicole Mallow (Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame) in which she will seduce the 15-year-old Philly, fake her own death, and then extort money out of the kid.
Strangely, this is exactly what happens. Philly is receptive enough – the first 20 minutes are dedicated to depicting Brown’s character as a conventionally sex-crazed adolescent bumbler, spying on Nicole. The seduction escalates from strip tease, to a shared bathtub, to dating, to sex and Nicole’s coronary expiration. At first, Philly is complicit in hiding the death/sex-murder, but then Nicole (after a “change of heart” ha ha) reveals herself and the plot and cooperates with the boy to “turn the tables” on the conniving chauffeur. Then, more sex, if you can believe it.
This film has a problem common to most every movie where the protagonist is a child: all of the adult characters function as slightly taller children. There is not a line of adult dialogue to be heard, and even the villain reasons and performs like a kid with a fake driver’s license. The viewer finds himself aching for a mature voice, someone to provide a little perspective. “Sex is pretty complicated stuff, and you might not know exactly what you’re feeling.” “This woman is exploiting you for criminal gain or because she is emotionally disturbed.” “Impersonating a police officer is a federal crime, with real consequences.” “If you truly love this woman, you won’t hide her body in a meat freezer.” My money was on the gardener, but he has like one line. Even Ed Begley as the boys’ tennis instructor seems, what, retarded?
And the sex scenes, ho boy. Eric Brown was 16 years old when they were shot – in Mexico, where the age of consent was low enough. He looks 4 years younger like a pencil with too large an eraser. In bed, the effect is uncanny – she’s just so much larger, and Brown is so obviously a child. I knew guys in high school who were 6 feet tall and had credible mustaches at 16, but Brown is asexual and tiny. For me, this is the skin-crawling confirmation that I am witnessing some kind of assault: the sight of the this fully grown, nude woman towering over a skinny, motherless nit.
And I mean literally without a moms. When they argue that “I totally would have loved for this to happen to me,” Lessons boosters like to pass over the fact that Philly’s mother is dead. That’s right, in a house devoid of feminine guidance, the kid is screwing his surrogate mother.
I read a vague Internet rumor that Private Lessons was initially set to be some kind of thriller/horror movie, but early production decisions canted it firmly into the screwball sex comedy genre. That’s a real shame if you ask me, because even with the current cast, Lessons is about two degrees away from being an early 80s “The Turn of the Screw” (1898). What Henry James got right and Dan Greenburg gets wrong are the psychological consequences for the older woman when her relationship with a child becomes erotically charged. Ask yourself, just for a second: What is the internal landscape of an adult woman who fucks a 15-year-old boy who looks 12? Initially, Nicole Mallow’s actions and emotions are counterfeit, but the audience is asked to believe that she willingly returns to a sexual relationship with the boy after the plot has been exposed and the threat of extortion is past?
Nicole is potentially the most interesting character in the film. If only Greenburg and Myerson had allowed her to verbalize some kind of internal conflict or crisis. Or even better: no conflict, but instead a predatory evil! Well, that doesn’t happen – our love interest is nearly devoid of reflective capacity, and the movie dutifully maintains its focus on the least complicated character.
Of course he’s uncomplicated: he’s a child with a child’s motivations. The only parts of this movie I enjoyed were Philly’s efforts at negotiating his seduction. Keep in mind, the plot that Lester Lewis has hatched is designed to elicit a base response – it conforms too closely to a boys-only campfire story. But in spite of all the big talk, bad jokes, and binoculars, the boy wants to take it slow – he wants a courtship, he wants to be wooed. He ardently declares his respect for Nicole, and finally demands that their physical intimacy take place within a context of love and eventual marriage. In complete ignorance of their larger meanings and importance, Philly somehow opts for the suite of behaviors that corresponds to being a gentleman.
Is this what Private Lessons is trying to be about? We know masculine adolescent innocence finds womanhood impossible to fathom – mesmerizing and terrifying. It doesn’t help being surrounded by too much information, almost all of it toxic and wrong. (I’m speaking of Philly’s friend Sherman, a convenient placeholder for the entirety of dimwitted consumer sex culture.) But if a boy is permitted to move slowly, at his own pace, he will somehow know to do right? Is that the Lesson?
If you simply have to watch a movie in this genre, there are a hundred options within a few degrees of the same quality, though less psycho-sexually suspect. The world would not be a worse place if Losin’ It (1983) or My Tutor (1983) disappeared forever. Risky Business (1983) is worth a second viewing – it manages to critically interrogate its own status as an adolescent fantasy picture, which is downright pomo ahead of its time. Plus the loony Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Plus train sex.
Tired of watching boys lose their virginity? The Last Picture Show (1971) is a beautiful, crushing movie that won two Academy Awards and started the careers of several big names, including Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. Come to think of it, if you’re busy watching screwball comedies, you might not be old enough for Picture Show. Grow up.
And finally, there’s Summer of ’42 (1971). Elegiac, poetic, a movie that knows what to do with silence and honors the ancient ritual of innocence lost in correct proportion. And Jennifer O’Neill is perfect.
– Rental Rehab review by Joshua
 To her credit, Nicole is only forced into this situation by Lester owing to her illegal work status. But it’s not like she fights very hard.
 And hugely successful softcore veteran. Emmanuelle (1974) had eleven sequels.