Poignant reflection: "The Beautiful Person" opens the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Friday. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

High Drama in High school in 'The Beautiful Person'

Max Goldberg September 4, 2009

In their recent introduction to a teen-themed edition of the online film journal Rouge, co-authors Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin and Grant McDonald begin by distinguishing between coming-of-age films which defang adolescence of its dangerous vitality by narrating from the perspective of adulthood and those which revel in what they call "teenage wildlife": "The story of teenagers living in an eternal present moment, like a savage, roaming pack of animals." The Beautiful Person is too mannered to qualify for the "brutal poetry" concerning the Rouge crew, but "teenage wildlife" seems an extremely apt phrase for the way French writer-director Christophe Honoré films the adolescents starring in his own high school musical. In the movie’s early scenes, when Honoré throws us into the noisy ecology of a tony Paris high school without orientation—we’re following Junie (Léa Seydoux), the damsel of the title, on her first day as a transfer student—he does so with indiscriminate immersion of an ethnographer. Later, when the characters settle into place, there are frequent cutaways to teens draping themselves over furniture and each other: public displays of affection are merely expressive of a natural order of heartbreak.

The Beautiful Person
is billed as an adaptation of Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel, La Princesse de Cléves, making it one of several films to locate a classical romance in a contemporary high school setting. This makes a certain logical sense—the teenager knows impossible love, lingers on grudges to the right point of irrationality, rumbles into intimacy, and partakes in a rigid hierarchy that’s a close enough match for Court. As in the source novel, a fragile young woman is introduced into a sphere brimming with gossip and intrigue. She is quickly paired with a serviceable match, but falls under the sway of a debonair older man named Nemours (Louis Garrel), here a professor of desire (which is to say, Italian).

It’s some kind of wonderful joke having the terminally boyish Garrel as the old man of The Beautiful Person. One of the film’s primary pleasures rests in seeing his obvious seduction rebuffed. After expertly laying his bohemian trap for comely Junie, he finds himself cornered by his own cliché in the crucial moments. Critics chalk up the film’s blasé attitudes expressed for teacher-student trysts as being typically French—one wonders how this jibes with the portrayal in The Class (2008)—but as in Dans Paris (2006) and Love Songs (2007), Honoré’s untroubled attitude towards sexuality makes for a modern fairy tale. To wit: the roving camera and available light say cinema verité, but the density of allusions, cinematic and otherwise, envelop the story in a baroque once upon a time.

The aura of adaptation even extends to the casting: Seydoux’s resemblance to Anna Karina is nearly uncanny, and certainly strong enough to make us think Honoré is playing Vertigo with his leads. Insofar as each of The Beautiful Person’s main characters are trapped by predetermined roles, however, the formal confusion resulting from déjá-vu seems a poignant reflection of their solipsistic emotional lives. As for the complaint that Honoré‘s is maddeningly inconsistent—well, a realist musical fantasy would probably have to be, but it is true that Honoré’s dashing style gets pushy when things turn melodramatic. And yet, Honoré is at his best when his narration is most promiscuously digressive, as when the tired trope of a love letter falling into the wrong hands turns up a secreted gay romance, and without warning we’re whisked away on the sails of desire. Most filmmakers wouldn’t allow themselves to go so head-over-heels: that’s Honoré’s curse and gift.

  • Aug 9, 2011

    High Energy 'Point Blank' Is a Rush

    Thrill ride 'Point Blank' loses nothing in translation—it's a prime example of cinematic globalization.

  • Jul 9, 2010

    'Wild Grass' Finds Resnais Still Growing

    Resnais remains elusive and detached, his films beautiful abstracts of intellectual rather than emotional impact.

  • Apr 21, 2010

    SFIFF53: Deft Dussollier In 'Micmacs,' 'Wild Grass'

    How many foreign stars do U.S. moviegoers know? Not many, alas. My favorite living French actor, André Dussollier, appears prominently in two high-profile festival films.

  • Jan 17, 2010

    Michael House's Translation of Tati at YBCA

    Riding the crest of the Tati tsunami hitting our shores is The Magnificent Tati by Michael House, who lived in S.F. for 12 years before moving to Paris.

  • Dec 17, 2009

    Soulful "35 Shots of Rum" Gently Intoxicating

    Claire Denis proves her unpredictability and versatility as a director with the 2008 release 35 Shots of Rum.

  • Oct 29, 2009

    French Cinema Now—and then

    Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is being revived as part of San Francisco Film Society’s second annual French Cinema Now festival, which runs the week of October 29 through November 4 at the city’s Clay Theatre.

  • Sep 18, 2009

    Lucrecia Martel and "The Headless Woman"

    To viewers of Lucrecia Martel's earlier work, The Headless Woman is the crowning achievement; the filmmaker speaks about her vision of the world.

  • Sep 9, 2009

    William Klein's Restless Mind

    The movies of William Klein are suffused with the same impudence, social commentary and aesthetic surprise found in his photos.