French cinema has the fortunate tendency of representing girls as actual human beings, instead of pretty adornments twirling around a male lead. Alice (Ana Girardot), the girl in High Society, might have been reduced to a supporting-role function of her own working-class life had she not run into Agnès (Aurélia Petit), a well-connected and well-coiffed designer. Agnès helps take Alice out of the hood to develop her creative skills and get into a renowned fashion school. A support that Agnès soon regrets, as the girl ends up falling for Agnès’ son, Antoine (Bastien Bouillon), forcing lower and upper classes to make contact beyond fleeting bursts of philanthropy.
Alice and Antoine’s affair has the purposefully clinical aura of an Eric Rohmer sex scene. There’s no sentimentality, or even sentiment, only no-nonsense sexual intercourse and post-coital philosophical interrogations. Yet girls will be girls, and Alice is both seduced and unsettled by a life of actual opportunity and bourgeois passive-aggressiveness. The question haunting the film is: When will she get hurt and how bad will it be? As we know, boys will be boys, too, and rich people will be assholes. As Alice becomes comfortable with Antoine’s wealthy lifestyle and her creative talents flourish (conceptual embroidery in the search of “the impalpable,” as one of her professors puts it), Antoine’s rebel-without-a-cause critical stance about his own class gives way to newfound creative ambitions so he can compete with Alice. And Agnès tries to silently spoil the whole thing behind the scenes, as the bourgeois are wont to do.
There’s something of Isabelle, from François Ozon’s underrated Young and Beautiful, in Alice. It’s in the way the awkwardness of becoming a woman gets resolved, or further complicated, through the girl’s discovery of a power within her in the most unsentimental ways: sex work for Isabelle, art for Alice. But while Ozon closes in on Isabelle’s singularity—her face, really—to suggest women’s predicament (in essence: the body is all you have, but shame on you if you use it), High Society director Julie Lopes-Curval goes through Alice to hint at a more macro class critique.
The film can sometimes feel forced and literal, as when the talk around the working class family table is about people getting laid off, and when characters spew out lines like “beauty hides pain” and “it’s appearance that protects us.” The world of the well-to-do is, in turn, full of children who speak casually about their parents’ unfaithfulness, and servants who can’t clean windows properly. High Society feels more genuine when it approaches the ethos of the Ozon film, which is a sort of mirroring of the girl’s own moments of absolute disregard for expectations. Like the slow-motion interlude of Isabelle’s don’t-give-two-fucks dancing at a rooftop party, and Alice’s aggressive outdoors sex after calling her lover out on his patronizing attitude.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 20—March 5.