Leave it to the French to craft an angsty, high school centered film, dealing with love, infatuation and lust, and yet not make it puerile, shallow and inaccessible to adults. The Beautiful Person a/k/a La Belle Personne is just that film. It's subtle, moving and intelligent, and manages to grab hold of the viewer and pull them through the narrative with hardly a uninteresting moment.
Junie (the stunningly beautiful Lea Seydoux) has just transferred to a new school, soon after the death of her mother. She's living with the family of her cousin Mathias (Esteban Carvajal-Alegria), and trying to fit in with the new crowd of eccentric kids that surround her. The school, along with its rigorous academics, is also home to a swirling maelstrom of passions and hormones. Students have secret affairs with teachers, and other students. True love is declared, and sometimes betrayed. Longing for unattainable perfection in a mate subsists uncomfortably with lust straining to break free. It is a microcosm of the human condition. And yet with all this, the film manages to avoid exploitation or salaciousness. One very brief moment with a couple of partially bared breasts is as far as it goes in terms of nudity. And this moment is far more effective and impactful precisely because of the restraint on the part of the filmmakers.
Junie is a changeable girl, happy and laughing now, and stone facedly morose a few seconds later. This causes considerable consternation for her introverted boyfriend Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), whose sincere love for her is rattled from time to time by her unpredictable ways. And that's before the arrival of the attractive young Italian language teacher Nemours (Louis Garrel), the would be Lothario who carries on simultaneous relationships with fellow teachers and his pupils. He casts them all aside when he first sees Junie, however. He is deeply smitten with the pale, enigmatic beauty in his class, who is so overcome by opera that she sometimes has to leave the room in tears.
Her feelings for him are somewhat more conflicted. She is certainly drawn to him, and perhaps to his unavailability and the almost assured eventual failure of any relationship they might have. She also has an honest affection for Otto, but how often does honesty overcome the forbidden call of infatuation? Her first instinct is to flee Paris, to avoid the object of her dangerous attraction altogether, but this involves telling Otto the reason why she is leaving, and leads to a tragic result.
And The Beautiful Person is at heart a tragedy, but a surprisingly vibrant and life affirming tragedy. It's a stream of consciousness film which flits from moment to moment, meditating here on the meaning of true love or sacrifice, floating then to an illustration of betrayal and despair, and mixing it all up in a frenetic jumble of impressions. The narrative isn't secondary, but it is deeply informed by the characters, their inner lives and desires. The story is another tool used to explore and define these people, though often quite subtly. Junie remains throughout an enigma, but we are given glimpses here and there of who she is and why she acts as she does, and at the end respect her. If the right actress had not been selected for Junie, it is fairly certain that the film would have failed utterly. Luckily, Lea Seydoux is absolutely perfect for the role, for which she was nominated for a Cesar Award. Not only is Seydoux quite talented as an actress, performing with a subdued minimalism that conveys volumes that a more expansive actor would miss entirely, she is also quite hypnotically beautiful. The Beautiful Person has an excellent ensemble cast, from the twitchy, bordering on creepy yet still attractive Italian teacher Nemours, to the soft spoken Otto, to everyone else who flies across the screen. But Seydoux is the heart of the film, and she carries it off admirably. This is a very fine example of how the world of young adults can be explored without descending to childishness.