Classic literature brims with unrequited love, back-stabbing, melodrama and showy suicides, all of which seamlessly lends itself to the halls of high school, where teenagers gather to act out their crazy mood swings and exaggerated rebellion. Filmmakers have realized this connection over the years, bringing us such films as 10 Things I Hate About You (a '90s remix of the Bard's The Taming of the Shrew) and Clueless (which took Jane Austen's Emma out of her stuffy English home and into a totally raging house party in the Valley).
The latest director to take on a celluloid redux is Christophe Honoré: his new film, The Beautiful Person ("La Belle Personne" en français) is a retelling of Madame de Lafayette's 1678 novel La Princesse de Clèves, a required reading staple in French classrooms that involves an aristocratic love triangle (what else) between a young woman, her husband who truly loves her, and the dude she loves instead. While the novel's general blueprint remains intact in The Beautiful Person, the setting has been moved from the 17th-century French courts to a modern day Parisian high school courtyard.
Junie, played by the bewitching Léa Seydoux, is the new girl at school. She has a killer bod and is instantly popular with a set of drooling boys. Her cousin, Mathias, introduces her to an oversexed crowd of cool kids and Junie quickly pairs up with the crew's most emo member, Otto, who proclaims undying love on the spot. Junie plays along, but only feels a true spark when she meets Nemours, her Italian teacher played by the lion-maned Louis Garrel. Luckily for her, he's a total nymphomaniac who has no qualms mixing business with pleasure (upon first meeting Junie, he is not only having an affair with a fellow teacher but also one of his pupils). Junie pouts as she plays hard to get. Nemours pouts as he gives chase. Otto the boyfriend pouts and then jumps off a railing. More pouting around the dead body. A brief and very random interlude involving a gay love triangle that culminates in a scissor fight! Then, back to the pouting.
All of this sounds almost farcical, like a parody of teenage angst and overblown emotion, but Honoré treats his subject matter with the utmost seriousness. The only hopeful glimmer that the film might stray from its dour treatment is when a character randomly bursts into a musical number, but the song turns out to be quite the maudlin affair. The trouble with allowing these scenarios such gravity is that most of us have been to high school and graduated with the knowledge that all the end-of-the-world dramatics never truly mattered and were just distractions from a four-year stretch of boredom. So how is one supposed to care about such trivial matters without even a dash of dark humor or playfulness?
For most of the film, the characters stare listlessly out of windows at the grey sky, sick with ennui. Even Paris, a city usually bursting with life and beauty, looks drab through this lens. All the malaise eventually rubs off on the viewer, creating a void of disinterest: the characters don't care to carry on living and we don't care to watch them try.
The Beautiful Person plays from September 4 through September 10, 2009 on the San Francisco Film Society screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in SF. For tickets and more information, visit sundancecinemas.com.