I consider writer-director Christophe Honore (born 1970) one of the most interesting and daring of current French film-makers. This is not to say that I like all of his films that I’ve seen. I liked “Tout contre L©o,” (Close to Leo, 2002), “Dans Paris” (2006), and much of “Les Chansons d’amour” (Love Songs, 2007) a lot, and mostly disliked “Ma m¨re” (My Mother, 2003). The last four and “La Belle personne” (The Beautiful Person, 2008), and two more since then, all starred the unusual-looking (long-faced, thin-lipped, with very prominent moles and unruly long hair) Louis Garrel (born in 1983, he made a big splash in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” in 2002).
“La Belle personne” is “loosely based on” Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel La Princesse de Cl¨ves (The Princess of Cleves), a book I read once upon a time (because it was one of the half dozen novels from before the 20th century that Andre Gide listed as indispensable) and would never have recognized the movie as a modern version. The book, however, remains in the canon, something with which any educated person in France is supposed to know well. Seemingly that expectation is part of the reason the movie was made, because (increasingly unpopular) French president, Nicolas Sarkozy opined that French civil service exams should not have questions relating to it.
French audiences not only are familiar with the book, but also knew that claiming relevance and enduring value for it was a direct slap at Sarkozy. Fine, but does the movie have interest in itself for non-French audiences? I’m not at all sure.
I thought the first half of the movie was not engaging and the characters were never much developed. I thought that the multiple Nick Cave songs were cheap gloom-spreaders. What first drew my full attention was playing a recording (in the Italian class of Nemours, Garrel’s character with the name of the would-be seducer of the princess of Cleves) of “Il Dolce Suono”, the most famous of Donizetti arias (at least before Pavarotti — ), which Lucia Di Lammermor sings over the corpse of the husband she has just married and slain sung by Maria Callas (who had romantic disasters of her own).
Nemours had been carrying on sexual affairs with both a fellow teacher and a student before being entranced by a new student, Junie (Lea Seydoux currently on screens in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”] with a long black wig). Junie has a strong aversion to being another of Nemours’s conquests. Her boyfriend (for whom she seems to care more than the Princess of Cleves did for the Prince… ) Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) does not believe her. As in the novel, there is an unsigned letter that everyone assumes was written by a distraught discarded mistress of Nemours, death, frustration, and renunciation.
A 21st-century French lycee is not very much like the court of the Sun King at Versailles, and not just because the characters have cell phones (they don’t, however, text and the unsigned letter is handwritten). Hierarchy is less fixed, if not entirely fluid.
The French, at least in French movies and novel, have a higher tolerance than North American Anglo ones for intergenerational sexual relationships (“Ma mere” and “La souffle au coeur” [Murmur of the Heart], for instance. The Princess of Cleves was sixteen years old when she was married off. Lea Seydoux was 23 when she was reincarnating her as “La Belle personne.” She is only two years younger than Garrel and looked her age (also, her character was more mature than his — ). Why set a movie in a high school (lycee) casting twenty-somethings? Why distract viewers from admiring Seydoux’s performance with the absurdity of her character being sixteen?
There are some nice tracking shots, including one of the letter, executed by Laurent Brunet (Seraphine, A Screaming Man). But the film may be too French, too rooted in French culture for many North American Anglophone viewers.
See trailer here.
(Yahoo turned all the diacritics into garbage, so I had to remove them for this to be remotely readable, though ensuring they will be mispronounced.)