Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2015 2:23 pm 
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From Film Comment Selects

Limits of social mobility

High Society/Le beau monde has been described as Blue Is the Warmest Color without the lesbianism or the sex. This is more delicate and refined French art house cinema, with some nice specific observations, but surprisingly generic, and generally lacking a pulse. The story is a traditional one: a provincial Frenchman (here, French 20-something girl) succeeds in Paris, but at a price (here, an emotional one). A girl from unimpressive origins, Alice (Ana Girardot, who plays Sophie, the serial killer's friend in the R-V The Next Time I'll Aim for the Heart) gets involved with a boyfriend from a well-off family, Antoine (Bastien Bouillon), and they are uncomfortable with each other and their families. Antoine's elegant mother, Agnès Barthes (Aurélia Petit), helps Alice get into a sophisticated fashion trades school. Antoine drops out of business school to become a photographer.

Alice and Antoine are continually uncomfortable with their own families and each other's, and with each other, and with their careers, or at least the shy, insecure Alice is with hers. An obvious guide for her is an associate of Antoine's mother, Harold (Sergi López), a perfume maker she meets up with from time to time who offers a lecture on the Bayeux tapestry (Alice comes from Bayeux, in Normandy), and advice as one who, like Alice, comes from unprepossessing origins yet has found a career in "le baau monde," the French title of the film, which suggests as much elegance as social status. But the film is also about how hard it is to "make it" at a snobby school. We have to listen to Alice's snooty teacher's repeated pompous dismissals of her embroideries in class. Does she listen to an audio book version of Proust while doing her embroideries to refine her sensibility? These high-culture references do not make up for the anaemic scenes.

Alice's mother Christiane (Stéphane Bissot) is earthy, and pretty too, but overweight, and her ten-year battle to get compensation for being unjustly laid off seems pathetic to Alice. Her stepfather has a stall in the town market. Alice used to "détricoter" (unravel) old sweaters and redye them and make her own special sweaters and scarves. She is wearing such a sweater in a beautiful blue when she first meets with Antoine's mother about her CV, and gives her a scarf she has made, which, typically, the insecure girl is then ashamed of.

Antoine is annoyed and whinny twoard his mother for her intrusion and helping out, her noblesse oblige; and indeed she is blatantly intrusive; a conversation between her and another woman is heard where they are cruel and condescending toward Alice and her mother, a moment where the film makes its social points extremely bluntly. But when Antoine, with breathtaking speed, turns into a serious photographer -- and a surprisingly successful one; but of course he is well connected -- he particularly excels at shooting working class women and neighborhoods. In the first show of his photographs a portrait of Christiane is central, but he neglects to invite her to the opening. This show is the scene of a decisive fight between Alice and Antoine.

Lopes-Curval is keen on showing social, artistic, and emotional details -- the snobbism, jealousy, and shame that have been the stuff of such stories since Balzac and Stendhal. She is not so good as they at telling a story. And though Antoine is made out to be very into Alice -- he is always grabbing her and kissing her, which the big, boyish Boillon, with his broad shoulders and floppy hair, makes dramatic -- it's not even clear what they're feeling, other than awkward. The film resorts to a 3-years-later postscript of the couple, no longer one, again on a deserted French beach handsomely photographed by DP Céline Bozon as at the outset (Bozon's landscapes, the Barthes' casually elegant residences, and other Paris interiors are eye candy throughout) -- to do a post mortem explaining Alice was crazy about Antoine but couldn't show it. We should have known.

A most admiring description of this film by Amy Taubin appeared in ArtForum. Gavin Smith, editor of Film Comment, felt it was one of the highlights of 2014's Toronto Festival. Their enthusiasm was not shared by many of the French critics, who could appreciate the social details but also observed that the contrasts were schematic and obvious and the love story was flat. AlloCiné press rating: 3.2.

High Society/Le beau monde, 95 mins. Watched for this review at a public screening of Film Comment Selects at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center. Introduced by Gavin Smith and followed by a Q&A with Ana Girardot.


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