THE BEAUTIFUL PERSON (Christophe Honoré, 2008)

Originally made for French television, La belle personne updates to the present Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne’s (Madame de La Fayette’s) 1678 novel La Princesse de Clèves, transferring its sexual and other intrigues from royal court to high school, in this case, a distressingly dilapidated one. When the action starts, young, popular Nemours, who teaches Italian, is juggling simultaneous affairs with a colleague and a pupil. He will dump them both and pursue a new transfer, Junie, whose mother has just died. Despite sensible counsel from a male colleague, Nemours is oblivious to the fragile sensibilities of teenagers, and eventually Otto, who is dating Junie and is in love with her, commits suicide.
     I have seen three other films by Christophe Honoré, whose Ma mère (2004) I described as “arid” and “stuffed to the gills with joyless graphic sex,” but whose slight “Dans Paris” (2006) I found “affecting” and whose Les chansons d’amour (2007), though “uneven,” is not without its charms. These three, as well as La belle personne, all star handsome, charismatic Louis Garrel, son of filmmaker Philippe Garrel; Louis’s flickers of Jean-Pierre Léaudism connect him also to the nouvelle vague. (Papa Garrel directed Léaud in La naissance de l’amour, a brilliant survey of the middle-aged wreckage of the nouvelle vague post-1968 by a quarter-century, and himself took son Louis back to 1968 Paris in his tremendous Les amants réguliers, 2005.)
     This is, all in all, I think, Honoré’s best film thus far, with its deliberately overcomplicated plot and dreamy absence of drugs from the high school scene as sly nods to the film’s literary source, but its abundance of gossip and (now) teenage anxiety as a reflection on the degree to which kids may be “growing up” much too soon. This certainly seems the case with Junie in Léa Seydoux’s terrific low-key performance; it is Junie who confronts Nemours with the doomed nature of an affair between them, shutting the door on it before it has even begun. We are glad she does this, but we are also depressed in contemplating the price that such precocious wisdom exacts. (There is a hint that Junie’s father may have made his daughter the object of his sexual attention.) It is worth recalling here that Honoré has written books for children.
      Honoré and Gilles Taurand won the best screenplay prize at Lecce Festival of European Cinema.

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