I was over Louis Garrel before I was ever into him. The floppy-haired French heartthrob and star of films like The Dreamers and Regular Lovers is a master of standing with his hands in his pockets, staring down at the ground and mumbling; it’s when he has to connect with other actors that he gets into trouble. In Christophe Honoré’s new film, La Belle Personne, the 25-year-old Garrel plays a high school teacher who looks younger than some of his students. His physical immaturity suggests the emotional immaturity that prevents him from helping them as they struggle through sexual strife. The film is a modern-day adaptation of the classic French novel La Princesse de Cléves, but anyone who’s ever seen a high school movie before will recognize familiar tropes. The closet homosexuals, the suicidal young man, and the girl who attracts the teacher all come and go wistfully to the tune of Nick Drake songs, and Garrel walks moodily and broodingly down a windswept city street. Being French, Personne is more ironic and sophisticated than most American high school films, but for long stretches it’s still just as silly.
In Froster of Dawn, Louis Garrel plays François, a dreamy, beatific young man who dates Carole (Laura Smet), a young woman undergoing a mental breakdown; she kills herself, and her ghost haunts him as he tries to move on to further relationships. Like director and Louis’s father Philippe Garrel’s earlier films, The Birth of Love and Regular Lovers, Frontier of Dawn is photographed in gorgeous black and white (the play of light and shadow is particularly spectacular). This time around, though, I’m not sure why. The style may be meant to create a dreamlike, ephemeral quality, but it also had the effect of distracting me from a rice paper-thin story. The film’s frequent iris shots recall Truffaut, the cut-up editing of lovers’ bedtime talk feels taken from Breathless, and the second half’s ghostly shadows resurrect Cocteau. Even Louis Garrel’s shambling slimness seemed to me a sleepy spin-off of frequent Truffaut and Godard star and New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud. At times Frontier feels more like homage than like a film in its own right, but if its goal is to pay tribute to the dead, lost, and forgotten, then a reheated quality may be precisely the point.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.