Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 10, 2009 6:01 am 
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Classy Paris lycée as royal court; teenage love as tragic drama

For a TV film, Christophe Honoré's La Belle personne is elegant and allusive. It's a rethinking of Madame de Lafayette's 17th-century classic La Princesse de Cleves for Paris lycée classroom and courtyard--which may make you think of the way de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons was adapted to an American high school in Roger Kumble's 1999 Cruel Intentions. Honoré makes use of the fact that the good looks of youth confer a kind of nobility, high school cliques resemble court life, and teenage machinations aren't far from royal plots. The "beautiful person" (a phrase from the book) is any youth from a good family in a fashionable school. The director features Louis Garrel, himself clearly a "beautiful person," for a fourth time. The way he slips in appearances by Clotilde Hesme and Chiara Mastroianni and a tragic main role for Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, all from the director's musical film Love Songs, with one song included, makes you feel like the director is playing off his own company of players. As the self-centered seducer Nemours, Garrel, himself part of a French cinematic dynasty (his father and grandfather are both film icons), gets movie royalty for his love interest. Léa Seydoux, who plays the central female, lycée newcomer Junie, is a direct descendant of scions of the two great houses of French cinema, Gaumont and Pathé. Garrel is dreamier than Truffaut's alter ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). More than ever he seems Honoré's muse, his classic young Parisian boulevardier, flaneur, seducer. It's s all beginning to seem at bit inbred (but what genes!). On top of that former Cahiers du Cinéma writer Honoré, not surprisingly, as before, slips in illusions to the Nouvelle Vague, especially Godard.

If this sounds interesting, even classic, but emotionally a bit uninvolving, that's pretty much true. There's some titillation (but not much sex), long kisses, and a chance to look up close at beautiful boy and girl faces. For complication, as before with Honoré, a gay affair is woven in as if it were the most natural thing in the world (though this time there is also a great effort to hide it). But while the director's Dans Paris lurched back and forth between hilarity (embodied in Louis Garrel) and deep melancholy (hovering over Romain Duris) and in Love Songs a sudden death clouded everyone else's life, this time the teenage passions, ostensibly mortal, feel more superficial, and Nemours, who is involved with a woman teacher and a girl student at the film's start, barely shows a flicker of concern about his multiple affairs and broken hearts apart from the worry that they might get too messy. So the film may be a pleasure to look at; it may even provide the vicarious pleasure of imagining life at a snooty Paris high school; but the sweetness and sublime gloom of Love Songs and Dans Paris are now more fleeting and peripheral, replaced by machinations it's somewhat difficult to keep track of.

When Junie arrives at mid-term, her life disrupted due to the death of her mother, all eyes turn toward her sultry pout. One boy snaps photos of her. Nemours, not so much older than his charges, ostensibly teaches them Italian--not very seriously, it seems. This school lacks the ghetto intensity shown in Cantet's The Class or the elite-school rigor of Verheyde's Stella. Nemours purveys Italian by setting up a field trip to Italy (which falls through), having pop song lyrics read and translated, and allowing a student to play a record of Callas singing Lucia, causing him and Junie to fall for each other when Junie weeps and rushes out, leaving behind her photo-portrait for Nemours to grab and stash away.

Then comes the misplaced love-note, which gets very complicated, and leads to a revelation at a Métro stop about boys loving boys. Otto feels betrayed, though on the basis of another boy's mistaken observation. Why does Junie give him a children's book called Otto? Why does he wear a big sheepskin coat all the time, while the other kids wear lighter, hipper outfits, and Nemours' ensembles are like Hedi Slimane, only better? There are bits of guys playing basketball, scenes in a local café with a tough, motherly patronne; and the flashbacks have an appealingly blurry Nouvelle Vague look. We are talking style over substance here, but not exclusively. As in Dangerous Liaisons, those who suffer elegantly stil suffer. And Honoré's relatively weak grasp on what happens in the classroom can't detract from his ability to convey with some vitality the snippy-chic atmosphere in the hallways, and the quick devastation of a teen romance gone wrong (the original Princesse de Clèves, by the way, was fifteen).

Thanks to Alex Beaupain's songs and a well-structured sequence of scenes built around them, Honoré's Love Songs captured a bittersweet melancholy that perfectly fit the gray winter season in the Bastille quarter of Paris where it was set. This time the director has created a different atmosphere, lighter and noisier--but emotionally less engaging. But he has by no means lost touch with his Parisian milieu or his cast of attractive people. This is still a film that will be worth seeing again. Some of it flits by too fast to take in the first time.

The Princesse goes into a convent and dies at a young age. June instead withdraws from the lycée and goes on a long trip to a warm place. Otto has a more dramatic and sudden end than M. de Clèves, his counterpart in the novel. Collaborating on the adaptation with Gilles Taurand (who wrote Téchiné's excellent Strayed), Honoré has shown a light touch and is working in a consistent vein that is ever more Parisian and urbane, ever more "Dans Paris."

Except for "Comme la pluie" sung by Otto (Leprince-Riinguet), this film has no songs by Honoré's Love Songs collaborator Beaupain. Instead it is peppered with musical numbers and the songs of Nick Drake. Not part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, though it might have been, La Belle personne opened theatrically at BAMcinématek March 6, 2009 as kind of followup of a 2007 series there called "Generation Garrel," which provided a sneak preview of Dans Paris. La Belle personne has been bought for US distribution by IFC Films. It played in the London and San Sebastian film festivals.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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