“La Princesse de Clèves,” Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel of forbidden passions among the aristocracy, long a staple of high school French classes, has been adapted, loosely but conscientiously, into “La Belle Personne,” a film about present-day French high school students. The translation of classic works of literature into movies rooted in the idioms of modern adolescence is perhaps surprisingly a fairly common practice. Shakespeare begot “10 Things I Hate About You” (based on “The Taming of the Shrew”) and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance, just as Jane Austen’s “Emma” inspired “Clueless.”
Like those films “La Belle Personne,” directed by Christophe Honoré (who wrote the script with Gilles Taurand), combines an earnest respect for literature with a romantic, pop sensibility, though its mood is more fretful than playful. The soundtrack is full of brooding Nick Drake songs, and at one point a character bursts — or rather stumbles — into song on screen.
That moment recalls Mr. Honoré’s previous film, “Les Chansons d’Amour,” which was a full-fledged, disarmingly naturalistic musical with many of the same actors, most notably Louis Garrel. There, scenarios of love and longing played themselves out among carefree 20-somethings in Paris. Here, similar complications beset a group of anxious, restless classmates, whose world of gossip and hooking up is thrown into further turmoil by the arrival of a new girl named Junie.
Junie, played with voluptuous sullenness by Léa Seydoux, is a cousin of Matthias, whose own love trouble provides a narrative diversion from hers. She arrives at school midyear, after the death of her mother, and quickly becomes a universal crush object. Eventually she pairs up with Otto (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), but she also catches the eye of M. Nemours (Mr. Garrel), a teacher of Italian who barely looks older than his pupils and is, if anything, less mature than most of them.
Nemours, dashing and melancholy, is an updated specimen of an old literary archetype, the serial seducer tripped up by the force of his own irresponsible passion. When Junie arrives, he is in the midst of two affairs, one with a colleague, the other with a student, and his messy love life seems to trouble him more as a matter of logistics than of conscience or feeling.
The magnetic attraction between Junie and Nemours seems to be determined, above all, by the beautifully matched faces of the actors who portray them. Mr. Honoré, a writer for Cahiers du Cinéma before he was a director, taps into a familiar filmic iconography with almost scholarly rigor, evoking the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard, another Cahiers veteran. With his short tan raincoat and hollow-cheeked seriousness, Mr. Garrel could be a taller incarnation of the twitchy young intellectuals played by Jean-Pierre Léaud in mid-’60s Godard movies, just as Ms. Seydoux, with her full lips and infrequent smiles, suggests a slightly curvier Anna Karina.Continue reading the main story
La Belle Personne
(The Beautiful Person)
Directed by Christophe Honoré
Written by Christophe Honoré and Gilles Taurand
Starring: Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet
Run Time: 90 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
The daring young French director Christophe Honoré seems determined to carry on the traditions of the French New Wave’s first generation. He has taken as his muse and alter ego an offshoot of the Nouvelle Vague, the finely chiseled actor Louis Garrel, son of New Wave director Philippe Garrel (and godson of Jean-Pierre Léaud). He makes films that stretch the medium’s boundaries with the same insouciance as Godard and Truffaut, even offering his own quasi musical (Chansons d’Amour, 2008), that has its progenitor in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman. And now, in a move that is his most derivative to date, there is La Belle Personne.
What is most striking about La Belle Personne is that it actually looks like it might have been made in the early 60s, during the Nouvelle Vague’s heyday. The colors are so muted that at times I thought the movie was in black-and-white. The story, about the entanglements of young love and the complications that arise when two men fall in love with the same young woman, could have been cloned from Truffaut’s Jules and Jim or Godard’s Bande a Part. Most of the story takes place in a Paris lycée, an old high school building where adolescence is played out outside of time anyway. But even the clothing-the turtleneck sweaters, slacks and flats-hearken back to another era. Only the cell phones that occasionally appear let us know for sure that this is not the 60s, and not early Godard.
We still have to contend with another major Godardian conceit of his early years, and that is the spectre of Anna Karina that haunts La Belle Personne. Lea Seydoux, the actress who plays Junie, the love interest of the two besotted men, has an uncanny resemblance to Anna Karina, right down to the doleful eyes that peer under thick bangs, the full lips begging to be kissed, and the passive demeanor that suggests a mystery that could be as deep as a troubled mind or as shallow as vacant stare. She’s also quite beautiful, as the title implies, and Mr. Honoré’s camera lingers on her youthful, as yet unmarred, face with long, languorous shots in true Godardian style.
Junie is not only beautiful, but it turns out she’s also good (another translation of La Belle Personne would be The Good Person). Here, the idea of being “good” sadly morphs into “chaste” by the end of the movie. Her moral dilemma-whether to cause pain to the boy who truly loves her (the bland Otto), or to deny her own growing passion for the teacher who covets her (Louis Garrel plays a Don Juan whose charms finally prove impotent)-turns out to be the movie’s only interesting theme, however full of holes it is. But Junie’s ambiguous actions in the face of this dilemma are exasperating to watch. Our impatience is appeased, thank god, in a powerful scene near the movie’s end in which Junie finally, and eloquently, explains herself, professing a nihilistic belief that love is a finite emotion, while also, in the kind of contradiction that the young indulge in so well, paying homage to the kind of faithful devotion that Otto embodies.
Junie’s decision may be a selfless take on how to live with that fickle and spiteful god Eros, but in the end, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Her abstinence, which Honoré seems to deify in the movie’s final shot, is not only ridiculously impractical, it also comes too late, for the retribution of the jilted Otto has already been made.
Along with Gilles Laurand, Mr. Honoré adapted the script from the French classic novel La Princesse de Cleves, written by Madame de Lafayette in 1678. In taking the story out of the aristocratic erotic games-playing of medieval times and into the adolescent erotic games-playing of a modern-day high school, Mr. Honoré rejuvenates the age-old love triangle story on the surface, but underneath, it’s still the same heavy-handed morality at play. Too bad Mr. Honoré didn’t inherit a little cynicism from Godard, or at least a little light-hearted hedonism from Truffaut.