Head of the Class

Julie Lopes-Curval, Le Beau Monde (High Society), 2014, color, sound, 95 minutes. Alice and Antoine (Ana Girardot and Bastien Bouillon).

ALICE (ANA GIRARDOT), a pretty twenty-year-old who is in her first year at the Paris fashion trades institute L’École Duperré, and Antoine (Bastien Bouillon), an attractive business major who is about to drop out of grad school to become a photographer, are leafing through a monograph on the artist Sheila Hicks, whose use of fabric and other craft materials expanded the definition of fine art. They pause at a photograph of a small, ragged, irregularly colored cloth. Why, wonders Alice, is it beautiful? Antoine answers that it reminds him of primitive art and that you can see a wound in the coloration. Alice counters that his answers don’t say anything about its beauty or why it’s art. “It could be a badly woven fabric.”

Julie Lopes-Curval’s Le Beau Monde (2014)—or, as it has been inadequately retitled for the American market, High Society—is a coming-of-age romance that has its heroine negotiating a multivalent liminal space: between adolescence and adulthood, working class and upper class, fashion and high art, the provinces and Paris. I can’t think of another movie that articulates the conflicts in its young heroine’s life as intelligently, consistently, and subtly as this one does, while eschewing snark or exaggeration.

In the film’s first sequence we see Alice on a beach near Bayeux, her Normandy hometown. We might notice her sweater, brighter than the sea behind her but similar in its myriad shades of blue. The sweater also catches the eye of Agnès (Aurélia Petit), a fashion honcho who weekends nearby. Alice seizes the opportunity to ask Agnès to help with her application to the fashion institute and then thanks her by bringing her a scarf, which is similar to the sweater. But looking at her gift as she stands in the hallway of Agnès’s tastefully appointed country home, it suddenly seems to her crude and bulky. Through whose eyes was she looking when she unraveled thrift-store sweaters and reknitted the wool remnants into a wrap, and through whose eyes does she see her gift as Agnès smiles dismissively and says something about it being too warm for summer?

This question obsesses Alice as she moves from the crowded cottage where she grew up with a mom who fought for a decade to get the severance pay she was owed and a stepfather who runs a food stand in an outdoor market to the throwaway chic of the apartment in Paris that has been in Agnès’s family for generations and where Antoine, Agnès’s son, lives on-and-off. It is class difference that sparks the attraction between Alice and Antoine, and class difference and its attendant guilt will drive them apart. At school, Alice learns to put knitting books aside, to make embroideries that are personal to her even as they verge on abstraction and speak to the entire history of French handiwork. Did you know that the celebrated Bayeux Tapestry was not woven, as legend had it, by a queen waiting for her warrior husband, but rather by dozens of monks and servants? For Alice, the contradictions are endlessly troubling; they don’t, however, bother Antoine, who’s insulated by his privilege. When Antoine photographs Alice’s mom and then tells Alice how beautiful he finds working-class neighborhoods, she is outraged by what she perceives as his condescension and exploitation. She’s not wrong, the proof being that Antoine neglects to invite her mother to the opening of his one-man show, where her image is more vibrant than anything else on the walls. But the photo also suggests that Antoine had seen the life in Alice’s mother’s face more fully than Alice ever has.

Working with the delicately expressive cinematography of Céline Bozon and a screenplay that she cowrote with Sophie Hiet, Lopes-Curval has taken a familiar Bildungsroman structure and embroidered it with the behavior and dialogue of characters to whom she clearly has a personal connection. The embroidery makes the film new and exceptional. High Society will inevitably be compared to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013). Lacking that wildly overrated film’s exploitative depiction of women’s bodies and sexuality and its risible dialogue about art, feminism, and money, Lopes-Curval’s movie will not have an easy time in the US market. Currently lacking a North American distributor, its showcase screening in the prescient and eclectic “Film Comment Selects” series may be the only chance you have to see it on the big screen. Obviously, I think you should seize the opportunity. Girardot will be on hand for a postscreening Q&A.

High Society screens Saturday, February 28 at 6 PM at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the series “Film Comment Selects.