The two literary works that to my mind are the most difficult to adapt for the cinema or stage, Jane Austen’s Emma and Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves, are, perhaps for that very reason, the ones that seem to tempt many directors into creating ill-judged versions. What makes these two books so particularly tricky is the fact that each novel focuses on the inner workings of the heroine’s mind, so difficult to exteriorize on the stage or screen.
A few worthy but unexciting BBC versions of Emma were followed by the 1996 film, directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, who devoted so much of her energy to recreating an accent reminiscent of a 1930s announcer on the “BBC Third Programme” that she probably forgot that Emma had any inner thoughts at all. By far the best adaptation of the Austen text is the updated film version Clueless (1995), starring Alicia Silverstone, which manages to capture Austen’s irony and playfulness while still remaining fresh and original in its approach.
Jean Delannoy’s 1961 movie of La Princesse de Clèves, adapted by Jean Cocteau, has its admirers, but I am not one of them. Manoel de Oliveira’s 1999 cinematic version, La Lettre, ends in a bloodbath, which is simply a travesty of the restraint that characterizes Lafayette’s 17th-century representation of the 16th-century French court.
Christophe Honoré’s new cinematic adaptation of Lafayette’s novel, the blandly titled La Belle Personne (The Beautiful Person), is set in a modern Parisian high school. I arrived at the cinema in a state of pre-prepared cynicism about such a setting but was very pleasantly surprised at how effective it was. The hierarchical and claustrophobic intrigues of the royal court translate well into the highly charged, rule-bound world of adolescent angst.
Much of the cast of Honoré’s very popular last film, Les Chansons d’Amour, populates this movie, in both the major and minor parts. The two lovers from the previous film, Louis Garrel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, play the male protagonists: Nemours (same name as the dashing hero in Lafayette’s version) and Otto, the dependable but ever-so-slightly-boring Prince de Clèves character. New to Honoré’s line-up is Léa Seydoux, who plays the Princesse de Clèves character, in this version given the name of Junie, which is itself evocative of another 17th-century fictional character (from Racine’s play Britannicus) who, tellingly, ends up as a Vestal Virgin.
Junie arrives at the school soon after her mother’s death, accompanied by her cousin. She soon becomes attached to Otto, but is increasingly drawn to the good-looking Italian teacher Nemours, who is renowned for his previous conquests of many women. As the film progresses, Nemours becomes obsessed with his pursuit of Junie, who is unsure how to proceed.
A number of the scenes in Lafayette’s version (including purloined letters and eavesdropping on private conversations) are retained here, and they come across very well. Perhaps all that is missing in this film is the absolute intensity of the female protagonist’s hesitation, set within a world of so many constraints and so much restraint.
Garrel, who seems to have taken to heart the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw’s description of him in Les Chansons d’Amour as the most irritating actor around (a viewpoint I do not share), gives a very understated performance as Nemours, to the point that it is hard to see how truly fixated he is by Junie. Seydoux gives a measured performance but does not illuminate the screen in a way that might explain why men are so enamored with her character.
These reservations aside, Honoré has produced a film that is nuanced and possibly the best version thus far of Lafayette’s extraordinary novel.Favorite