Based loosely on La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de LaFayette, Christophe Honoré's The Beautiful Person is both a brilliant study of exteriors and a detailed exploration of how socialization can affect individuals in intimate relationships. De LaFayette's novel, which takes place against the background of French royal society, is here translated into the setting of a Paris lycée. The choice is appropriate, as both situations resemble standard adult society, but function more quickly and fatally due to their highly-organized systems of rank and communication.
In the spirit of the book, The Beautiful Person boasts a map of various love-polygons that recalls Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (Le Règle du jeu). Like Renoir's film, it runs the risk of seeming both overly ambitious and emotionally detached. But if Honoré doesn't spend much time picking apart individual relationship arcs, it's only because he's not in the business of creating a coming-of-age drama. He's more interested in the effect that these markedly adolescent situations—in which young people are packed together in close spaces daily and given an inflated sense of importance regarding their own lives—have on one's ability to pursue or accept love.
The connections that seem to have the most influence on characters are not romantic ones, but those of the general "society" that makes up the atmosphere of the lycée. We're only rarely given insight into interactions between couples, and in these cases, they often end up talking not about themselves but external complicating factors.
The plot revolves around the new girl at school, Junie (Léa Seydoux), who has recently moved in with her cousin Mathias and his family after the death of her mother. A student named Otto (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) immediately falls for Junie. She reacts favorably to his advances, but in her first day of class with the Italian professor, Jacques Nemours (Louis Garrel), she experiences an emotional meltdown and runs out of the room.
It becomes clear that Junie has strong feelings for Nemours but prefers to be with Otto, possibly in favor of having a stabilizing element in her life. Many directors would choose to focus on how mentally unstable Junie might be after her mother's death, or how Nemours being her teacher might add an unhealthy element to their connection, but Honoré simply acknowledges these concerns and keeps moving. Nemours is determined to find out how Junie really feels about him, and through various complications involving others' relationships, they are drawn closer together.
The strength of the film lies in Honoré's ability to create a complex story in the midst of certain repeating visual themes. Characters are frequently shot in a close-up, portraiture style reminiscent of Pasolini, which presents them as foreign creatures, specimens that cannot be dissected or understood but whose presence and influence is irrefutable. Windows function as silencers, frames, or a means of portraying distance. One unhappy lovers' scene precluding a breakup is viewed entirely through a café front. At another point, a bored teacher gazes out the window in the middle of a class and glimpses two students kissing; their movements are so self-contained and dense with silence that the viewer is almost given to wonder if they aren't a product of the woman's imagination. These devices serve to create awareness of the hunger for exteriors, the need to see others on a daily basis and watch what they do, even with the absence of any meaning behind their actions.
At the same time, characters appear to attach an immense importance to the appearances of themselves and others, an act which does not seem to give us, or them, any greater sense of who they are. One example of this occurs when Junie first arrives and the other students insist on taking her photograph. The venture has the feel of a pack of wild animals pouncing on prey, and in fact the student-photographer himself appears to be trying to seduce her. The photo gains unqualified importance almost immediately. Nemours steals it when Junie accidentally leaves it in his classroom and for a time seems more focused on studying the photo than pursuing her, while Otto jokingly nags her about losing it before having given it to him. In another scene, a student snaps a photo of his boyfriend - who happens to be Junie's cousin Mathias - in a sexual act with another boy and threatens to post it on the school website unless the two stop seeing each other. In both cases, one is given the impression that images of people are not seen as separate from the people themselves, and that the holders of said images feel themselves in possession of a certain leverage, if not of the subjects of the photos themselves.
Léa Seydoux has been compared favorably to Anna Karina (Godard's wife and collaborator), and like Karina has the ability to change the mood or direction of a scene simply by smiling. She may at times appear expressionless, but this is consistent with her portrayal of a guarded exterior occasionally penetrated by involuntary shows of emotion. The few quiet scenes between Junie and Nemours show all that is necessary to make the audience believe that they are, if not in love, at least in the grips of something fuller and more genuine than either has the immediate ability with which to grapple. Running throughout the film is the idea that one's place in a corrupt but comfortable social sphere can be upset by an instance of real human connection, and Honoré conveys this idea with the same sensitivity and empathy other directors might channel into a classic story of love and betrayal.
In his 2004 film Ma Mère, Honoré opted for an abrupt finalé, in order, he later remarked, to not give the viewer time to make a judgment. In La Belle Personne, he instead chooses to linger on the final scene. This is a far riskier move, as it may invite criticism of ambiguity, but also an artful and appropriate one. It offers a chance to process the plot with a clear mind. The Beautiful Person is a film that rewards the withholding of the type of judgment that becomes habit in a hyper-socialized society. "Society" here appears in the upper-class-ballroom sense, but the world that Honoré chooses to construct is one that trumps any stilted message about our particular culture and allows us to consider, above all, humans as social creatures, and the consequences of giving oneself up to others.