Dir: Christophe Honore. France. 2008. 98mins.
A contemporary adaptation of La Princesse de Cleves, the seventeenth-century novel of unrequited aristocratic passions, La Belle Personne plays out in a French high school which is a student-teacher moshpit of romantic intrigue and sexual tension. A stylish, insouciant affair, this claustrophobic drama from French maverick Christophe Honore debuted on French culture channel Arte (which co-produced) on September 12 before a home roll-out five days later and a San Sebastian international premiere. It should easily find ready buyers and a sophisticated international arthouse audience.
With a cast led by Honore’s regular leading man Louis Garrel opposite rising talent Lea Seydoux, this makes a merit out of its lack of documentary realism and its erotic love of surface beauty. Unlike, say, Notes On a Scandal, La Belle Personne is profoundly untroubled by the ethical dilemmas of teacher-pupil love affairs - something which will no doubt disturb some viewers. But there’s little feeling that Honore is setting out deliberately to provoke as he did in the incest drama Ma Mere.
Garrel plays Nemours, a young French high school Italian teacher who, when we meet him, is already romantically involved with a fellow teacher and one of his students. But the arrival of dark, sensuous Junie (Seydoux) in his class unsettles him, and he finds himself falling in love. Junie, however, has pledged herself to Otto (Leprince-Ringuet), a faithful and intense classmate who gradually suspects (rightly as it turns out) that her kindness is for him, but her passion for another. Intrigues involving a misplaced letter and a gay love triangle inventively transpose the incidents of La Belle Personne’s source material.
When we first see Nemours we assume he is a student, not a teacher. But this apparent miscasting soon comes to seem part of the unsettling strategy of a film that aims to recreate the hothouse atmosphere of Louis XV’s court in a modern high school context. Parents are virtually absent, and the city outside is reduced to a coffee bar, a wintry park and the outside of two apartment blocks. Despite its contemporary Parisian setting, you’d never guess that this school was in the same city or historical timezone as the lycee we saw in this year’s Palme d’Or winner The Class.
There’s nothing made-for-TV about the production values: editing and camerawork have a Truffaut-ish feel, and the soundtrack, big on ballads from singer-songwriter Nick Drake, will appeal to students. A very French production, this is likely to appeal to the same crowd that revelled in charms of Honore’s Dans Paris.
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Esteban Carjaval Alegria