review–”The Beautiful Person” (“La Belle Personne”) even the angst of teen love plays better in French, San Francisco Film Society, Sept 4-10, 2009
“The Beautiful Person,” set in Paris, in an upscale high-school, made me contemplate the unthinkable—if I ever had to do high-school over again, how would it go? How would I react to the various opportunities—amorous and otherwise– that unfold? Loosely inspired by the scandalous 17th century novel La Princesse de Cleves by Madame de La Fayette, director Christophe Honoré (“Ma mère,” “Love Songs”) continues his exploration of French romantic intrigue. Instead of Parisian aristocracy in the court of Henry II, Honoré and co-writer Gilles Taurand set their action in contemporary Paris in an upscale high school. The students are interesting, beautiful, and unkempt– the teachers too–and they explore love and passion while trying to stay engaged with what seems a very loosely regimented but awesome program of poetry, humanities, Italian, English and math. Junie (Léa Seydoux, “The Last Mistress”) is the new girl at school, a transfer student, who has come to live with her cousin Matthias just after the death of her mother. Voluptuous, alabaster-skinned, with a tragic air, she becomes the object of male attention and is quickly welcomed into Matthias’ clique of school friends.
Mild-mannered Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), falls hard for her and their first conversation sets up a loose plot. Otto tells her that Junie is also Néron’s tormentor in Racine’s 17th century tragic play “Brittancus” and they discuss how it ends badly for Junie who takes vows and never marries. Later, egged on by his friends, Otto professes his love to Junie. She tells him what she needs “Don’t lie to me and look after me, always.” Otto agrees. Junie French kisses him publicly in the school hall and the two become an item. Junie is bursting with magnetic mystique ..she is photographed in the hallway by a student who is an amateur photographer; she is noticed by women as well. At one point in the film, an evocative song on a jukebox plays lyrics that compliment what is going on throughout the film– ”She was so pretty that I didn’t dare love her.”
When newbie Junie arrives in Italian class, a student is in the midst of a presentation about Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Junie sits down by the teacher Mr. Nemour (Louis Garrel) and the two eye each other nervously. She abruptly walks out, in tears, during Maria Callas’ spellbinding aria, leaving her books behind. After this brief encounter, Mr. Nemour too falls hard for Junie and even steals a picture of her from her notebook. Nemour, a dark-eyed dreamy lothario, who barely looks like he is out of high school, is in the midst of two affairs–one with a colleague (Florence Perin) and the other with a student Catherine (Anaïs Demoustier). Nemours breaks it off with both women and confesses his love for Junie to his colleague who advises him that “loving a student is too easy.” “Not this one” Nemours replies “I’m a total love-sick mess.” To which his friend insighftfully replies “You seem more disappointed in love than in the concept of love at first sight.” Indeed the complexity, no mess, that ensues is overwhelming.
We get subtle hints that stalwart Junie is falling for Nemour but trying hard not to. She is terribly afraid of giving in to what she assumes will be a grand, once in a life-time love and denies herself Nemour but snacks on safe love with endearing Otto. Meanwhile, a subplot emerges involving a love letter that is passed around and mistakenly thought to be Nemour’s but really involves Junie’s cousin Matthias (Esteban Carvajal-Alegria) and his affair with fellow student Martin (Martin Siméon). Mathias has hidden his homosexuality and, in addition to Martin, has carried on with another student Henri (Simon Truxillo) who is in love with him and very vindictive. The letter threatens to expose everything if the correct author and intended recipient are revealed. But it’s all a mess. The letter changes hands several times and when Junie reads it, she assumes that Nemour has written it to her and takes actions that push this volatile group into certain doom.
This has all the makings of a great drama but falls short. The performances of the lead characters lack real depth and it’s very hard to get inside their heads, with the exception of Otto. Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel are enthralling to look at…and, based on looks alone, we can certainly envision them in bed together, but how would that happen? Their conversation is basically flat and they fail to connect naturally or with any tenderness…time after time. Junie is cold or indifferent, sending Nemour into confusion after confusion. By the time they finally come to an understanding, it is too late. And even when it is too late, we don’t get any feeling of implosion. Junie’s constraint, fear of succumbing to her passion, is what needs to be further explored. The potential is there but there’s no spark. Nicole (Chantal Neuwirth), a maternal and wise older woman who works at the local café where they all hang-out, takes a shine to Junie, and delivers one of the most authentic, but too brief, performances in the film. The cinematography is marvelous, capturing gray, drizzly Paris and some candid close-ups. The sountrack ranges from opera to Nick Drake , the lyrics tracking or accentuating the action in the film.
Screens Sundance Kabuki Theatre, September 4-10, 2009: 2:05 pm, 4:05 pm, 7:15 pm, 9:35 pm. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 11:40 am.
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