Although the beautiful person topping Christophe Honore’s update of the 17th-century novel “La Princesse de Cleves” is truly stunning, she may be the only flawless element in this shaky but intriguing contempo teen drama. Making his third feature in three years, Honore shoots fast, dirty, and mostly outdoors, making him the latest heir to the French New Wave throne. Yet with characters shuffling uneasily between realism and fantasyland, and a baroque plot that seems ill fitted to the times, his film convinces more as a narrative exercise than as genuine drama. Pic should find some theatrical play outside Gaul.
When gorgeous brunette Junie (Lea Seydoux) is transferred to the school of her cousin Mathias (Esteban Carjaval-Alegria), she quickly becomes the new object of desire, eventually succumbing to the timid, sensitive Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Yet their romance is doomed as soon as Junie enters the classroom of sexy Italian prof Nemours (Louis Garrel), who’s currently dating a fellow teacher (Valerie Lang) while sleeping with one of his students (Agathe Bonitzer), and hungrily eyes Junie like the next dish in his 12-course meal.
Since the moral issue of Nemours’ teacher-student trysts is quickly brushed aside in a single drunken dialogue (only in France, some may say), the real dilemma here entails Junie’s inability to choose between her b.f. and her teacher, and she manages to drive both of them nuts. Meanwhile, a subplot involving her cousin’s hidden homosexuality and affair with fellow student Martin (Martin Simeon) edges its way into the main storyline, leaving many of the protags in emotional tatters.
Though pic is a “free” adaptation of Madame de Lafayette’s novel, the book’s story of unrequited love seems too far-fetched to be grounded in present-day Paris, where you’d imagine the teens would have no qualms about betraying each other’s trust for some decent sex. Likewise, the script takes a few too many unrealistic turns, even if it’s often made watchable by Honore’s mixed bag of cinematic tricks, which include a musical number that seems to be a leftover from his previous film, “Love Songs.”
In his fourth collaboration with the director, talented thesp Garrel once again rehashes the role of a sexy, brooding intellectual who’s constantly on the verge of either seduction or suicide (or of lighting up another cigarette). Relative newcomer Seydoux is an unquestionably strong screen presence here, and the camera remains glued to her face for several long sequences.
ARTE-financed production favors TV-style closeups, but d.p. Laurent Brunet (“Free Zone”) manages to mix in some stylistic flourishes. Soundtrack includes songs by Brit singer Nick Drake.