Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation offers a host of small but significant updates to previous versions of the film. There’s a lush, modern take on late-19th-century dressing; a romantic, ambiguous ending; and — crucially — Gerwig’s choice to cast a hot, French Professor Bhaer.
For those new to Little Women, it’s easy to take this smoldering bel homme for granted. In a movie stacked with pretty people, including fellow pretty French person Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, hot Professor Bhaer’s presence feels like a given. But for those familiar with the original story, the casting choice — French actor and filmmaker Louis Garrel — comes as a delightful shock. In the original tale, this is the “not handsome” tutor whom the book’s ambitious heroine Jo (Saoirse Ronan) ends up marrying over the dashing Laurie. As The New Yorker put it in its review, “On the page, [Bhaer] is a porky middle-aged German,” but in Gerwig’s vision he “becomes an ardent French smolderer. It’s like ordering bratwurst and getting coq au vin.”
Indeed! Garrel is best known for his beautiful scowl, and his 2003 role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, an extremely horny film about an American student who falls into an incestuous love triangle with two siblings. The rest of his career has followed a similarly poignant — and erotic — thread. Many of his roles were courtesy of his father, French New Wave director Philippe Garrel, who often cast his son as the brooding, sexy artiste (Regular Lovers, 2007; A Burning Hot Summer, 2012; Jealousy, 2014). And Garrel recently cast himself at the center of a steamy love triangle in his 2018 film A Faithful Man.
Choosing this French heartthrob to play the professor is a deliberate and significant choice on Gerwig’s part. As The Paris Review noted in 2016, book-Bhaer is incredibly divisive, especially among avid Little Women fans. On one side is the camp of those who believe he is a wise, kind, and mature alternative to the superficial and self-centered Laurie; on the other, Bhaer, who is 40-something years old and “less glamorous, rather didactic,” has been labeled as a boring “anti Bad Boy,” or even worse, “a creepy sexual predator masquerading as an unassuming bookworm.”
To be fair, in the realm of film adaptations, dashing Professor Bhaers are nothing new: a young Gabriel Byrne, Mark Stanley, and Paul Lukas have all been past-Bhaers, all of whose jawlines and actorly charisma distinguish them from the homely old professor Alcott offered in the original text. But none of these Bhaers have been as overtly sexy as our coq au vin; casting Garrel is a choice. It’s like putting Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lopez in a role. This is a man whose entire career has played on his extreme sex appeal — Gerwig wants us to know he’s a no-arguments hottie, full stop.
And Gerwig’s alternate ending makes the choice even more notable. In her version of Little Women, Jo doesn’t marry either Bhaer or Laurie, who in this rendition of the story are (depending on your tastes) equally hot and, ostensibly, worthy of Jo’s love. In Gerwig’s version, Bhaer is not Laurie’s foil — he’s a rival.
But instead of either of these men, Jo’s finds true fulfillment with her book, which we see getting printed and bound in the final scenes of the film. As Gerwig argued in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Jo and her book, the titular Little Women, make up the chief love story of the film. Gerwig wanted the moment Jo receives her bound copy to resemble the moment when a heroine gets kissed: “It’s not girl gets boy, girl gets book,” she explained to the magazine. And no matter how hot and French Professor Bhaer is, he can’t compete with that.