La belle personne (2008) is a haunting look at a fictitious French high school and all the tawdry & sordid affairs that go on in such an establishment. Its plot allegedly is related to a classic French novel, La Princesse de Cléves – the story revolves around a young girl, Junie (Léa Seydoux’s breakout role). Junie’s mother has recently died and to move on, Junie has decided to transfer to a new school and live with her cousin. Being a very beautiful girl, she immediately attracts the attention of the entire school on her first day.
The people most attracted to Junie are Otto and her Italian teacher Nemours, whose name comes from the Duke de Nemours character in the Cléves novel and Junie is the Princess de Cléves. As I haven’t read the novel yet, I can’t comment as to if it’s faithful to the novel’s plot or characters. However, I can comment on how scandalous this love triangle becomes – Otto, the faithful appropriate boyfriend versus Nemours, the forbidden fruit – the promiscuous teacher who has already proven himself a renowned farmer by plowing other teachers and students alike.
Otto is the faithful lap-dog, the reliable choice, the anxiety-ridden teenage angsty choice, and the boy that Junie can’t bear to hurt. And yet, the first day she meets Nemours, we’re aware that *something* is certain to occur between Junie and Nemours. The questions that remain are “what” and “when”.
The film isn’t entirely about Junie and her own little world of relationships. It’s also about the rest of the high schoolers and their own typical high school topics. A class trip to Italy (with Nemours), class photography, the relationships of other high schoolers, and assorted conversational topics are peppered throughout the movie to add to the structure of Junie’s experience within this school.
One conversational topic was Otto’s lament that he could never find a book with a character called ‘Otto’ in it. Near the end of the film, Junie presents Otto with a copy of the book, Otto by Tomi Ungerer (a favorite picture-book illustrator of mine). It’s easy to dismiss this as being a trival item, but it’s part of a longer scene that hits home (and is NSFW) as an authentic high school relationship experience.
Another topic that helps this film become more authentic is the topic of homosexual relationships, especially in the exploratory high school experience. An explosive scene is produced from what seems to be a throwaway topic, but is actually central to the film itself. Junie’s cousin (with whom she is living currently) is gay, and the topic of both closeted and uncloseted relationships are explored topically. Having such a honest look at gay relationships is always a good thing – they’re just as complicated as heterosexual ones. The unfortunately sad fact is that most gay relationships or characters in both television and movies in America is always some version of a stereotype.
Being a French film means that it doesn’t have an American perspective on things. We see the suicide of a character. We see the tawdry details of suspected cuckolding. We see the complicated relationship between teacher and student without a clear line demarcated between the professional and personal sides of the relationship. And in the end, Junie chooses to leave behind this life, which was supposed to be a refuge from her original life and yet ended up being just as complicated and painful as what she was fleeing from in the first place.
Director Christopher Honoré has cajoled magic out of Léa Seydoux’s performance – a pitch-perfect rendition of moody and charismatic Junie. Junie believes she can never truly be happy, and constantly denies herself pleasure. Love is temporary for Junie.
MPAA Rating: (None – foreign film, but there is a lot of smoking, sexual discussion, and one nude scene)
Director: Christopher Honoré
Studio: MPI Home Video
Affiliate links: [AMZ: DVD – Region 1] The Beautiful Person