x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

La Belle personne

The transposition of Madame de La Fayette's novel is elegant and affecting. High School Musical: Édition Parisienne this most certainly is not.

The London film festival would not be the London film festival without yet another premiere of a Christophe Honoré trifle. (His rate of output only really succeeded by his compatriot and fellow festival favourite François Ozon.) And La Belle personne resumes in style, if not in substance, where Honoré's previous two films, Dans Paris and Les Chansons d'amour (Love Songs) left off, continuing his cupid's eye view of Paris. There is, here, a straight realism that, if not missed, was just never there in his previous tales from the city. But it's still all very witty and light and literate. If Honoré's last film was called Love Songs, this one could just as well have been titled Love Letters, so much of the plot hanging on a misplaced love note that passes around various members of the high school Italian class. Madame de La Fayette's novel La Princesse de Clèves provides the source material for this curiously compelling adaptation, which transposes the romantic tangle to a Parisian lycée. It is an effective sleight of hand, the claustrophobic court of Louis XV substituted for a high school courtyard, a neighbourhood café-et-tabac, a wintry park and some fleeting street scenes. You'd be hard-pressed to appreciate that this mere handful of settings exists in the same city inhabited by another of the festival's star attractions, Laurent Cantet's The Class (Entre les murs). Honoré regular Louis Garrel (he's appeared in every one of the director's four feature films) plays Nemours who, at the beginning of the film, is already romantically linked to a fellow (older) teacher and one of his students. In fact, when we first meet Nemours, we assume he is one of the students, not a teacher, the elision in casting a deliberate, effective ploy to further blur the portrayal of student-staff relations. There will be no Notes on a Scandal-style discourse on the ethics of teacher-pupil affairs here. The arrival of new girl Junie (Léa Seydoux, a kind of French Juno whose acerbic quips come in the form of smouldering looks rather than pop culture references) into his Italian class unnerves Nemours. She is, however, casually seeing her classmate Otto (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), a brooding young man who soon recognises that his passions for Junie will never be so faithfully reciprocated. "A total love-sick mess," as Nemours puts it. The liaisons are dangerous. The consequences prove tragic. The transposition is elegant and affecting. The camerawork owes much to Truffaut, all loose and unfussy, and Chantal Hymans' editing (another Honoré stalwart) cuts through the various passions that bubble and erupt. The students talk Racine and literature. They go to arthouse cinemas with their just-as attractive teachers. They cry during a Maria Callas recording of Donizetti's reimagining of the Walter Scott novel, Lucia di Lammermoor, played to them in class. There's even a pure musical moment in the form of a duet sung by Seydoux and Leprince-Ringuet, which leads to the film's twisty, twisted dénouement. But High School Musical: Édition Parisienne this most certainly is not.