Lady and the Duke, The (L'Anglaise et le Duc) (France, 2001) *** 1/2
Directed and written by Eric Rohmer. Produced by Francois Etchegaray. Photography, Diane Baratier. Editing, Mary Stephen. Art direction, Antoine Fontaine. Historical research, Herve Grandsart. Paintings, Jean-Baptiste Marot. Cast: Lucy Russell (Grace Elliott), Jean-Claude Dreyfus (the Duke of Orleans), Francois Marthourte (General Dumourier), Leonard Cobiant (Champcenetz), Caroline Morin (the maid Nanon), Alain Libolt (Duc de Biron), et al. A Sony Classics release. In French with subtitles. 129 minutes. PG-13. At the Art Theater.
The film looks like a paradox in the "oeuvre" of Eric Rohmer, one of the key pioneers of the French New Wave. He carved for himself a new niche in cinema, that is, a major niche the size of a cavern. Now (in 2002) he is 82 years young. In picture after picture he created a new genre and a new style: relations between and amongst characters--generally young or youngish--are explored mostly by dialogues, conversations, actions and reactions.
Many of the films are "romantic comedies" in the Gallic sense of the 18th century stage-plays by Marivaux. The settings are contemporary. Of course I am simplifying a refined, sophisticated as well as realistic system.
In two features, "The Marquise of O" and "Perceval," Rohmer left the present for the literary past. Now he goes back again, this time to the French Revolution, for an adaptation of the memoirs of Grace Elliott. She is called "the Englishwoman" in the film's French title although she was a Scot.
Mrs. Elliott had been a divorcee, then the lover of the Prince of Wales (the future King of England,Georges IV), and the mistress of Prince Philippe, Duke of Orleans, a cousin of France's King Louis XVI. The Duke (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) brought her to France, which Grace loved and soon considered as her adoptive country. Her affair with the Duke came to an end, but the two remained very good, affectionate friends. She also kept her excellent social standing.
During the Revolution, she remained faithful, both intellectually and sentimentally, to King Louis, Queen Marie-Antoinette, and, in general, to her royalist beliefs. The Duke, on the other hand, sided with the Revolution, sincerely and not opportunistically. He believed in it, hence he was given the Republican name of "Philippe-Egalité" (Philippe-Equality.)
Rohmer, who shot all but one of films in real locations, opted for an all-studio picture. He had artist Jean-Baptiste Marot paint realistic backgrounds in the style of the period and incorporated them digitally in the movie. The result is a set of views (streets, squares, city and country scenes, etc.) which may be "trompe l'oeil" yet are fascinatingly both real and unreal. This is a unique method, while, in a sense, Rohmer went back to a modern form of early cinema.
The story in those memoirs (and the film) boils down to Grace's elegant dialogues with the Duke; to her rescuing an aristocrat who was wanted by the Republicans in power, and detested by the Duke, but this did not prevent him from helping Grace; to the King going on trial while Grace talked the Duke (who also disliked His Majesty) to vote against the execution of Louis; to both the Duke and Grace, separately and for diverse reasons (fabricated ones) got into major trouble with the new regime.
[A historical note, nonetheless, about the ironies of politics. Louis-Philippe, the son of the Duke, was, like his father, in favor of the Revolution, whose army he joined and rose to General. But after the execution of Louis XVI, too much being too much he deserted and fled abroad. This was the main reason for his father's fall from grace. For about twenty years Louis-Philippe stayed away, visiting many countries including the United States. In the meantime, after the fall of Napoleon, came the Restoration of the monarchy (1814-1830) when two brothers of the late Louis XVI became kings, successively that is: Louis XVIII, then Charles X. After another revolution broke out in July 1830, Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, was offered the throne but as a constitutional monarch, and, in a fairly subtle linguistic switch, as King of the French as opposed to King of France. His reign, the July Monarchy, lasted 18 years. It was characterized by the ascent of the bourgeoisie and the King's educated support of the arts.]
The performances by the practically unknown (everywhere) Lucy Russell and the hardly known (in the U.S.A) Jean-Claude Dreyfus are exquisite.
I will not detail matters. Those who do not know French history will surely get a feeling of suspense. Rohmer, also a film critic, scholar and editor-in-chief of major cine-magazines, knows suspense. He and director Claude Chabrol wrote the first book ever on Alfred Hitchcock.
Rohmer's art for dialogue and meaningful conversations is unquestionably superior. Here he shifts from the modern conversations and exchanges of his earlier movies to a fully successful reconstruction of the period's language, style and vocabulary. It is refined, fully convincing (even in the subtitles) and, when necessary, violent. I am thinking of the way the masses, the new persons in power, express themselves. The conversations among the educated deal with politics in a manner not too distant from that of the talk about religion in Rohmer's early "My Night at Maud's" (1969), or the talk about male-female relations in a host of his other movies.
The film's faithfulness to it source documents --and to reality-- has absolutely nothing in common with the artificiality of historical movies (and "biopics") made by Hollywood, or for that matter with several European films, including French ones, which deal with the past.
The movie is not kind to most of the Republicans. (Let me stress that this term has little to do with the same word in British or American English.) The mobs get no special mercy. The result was that many French reviewers accused Rohmer of revisionism and anti-Republicanism. They were dead wrong. What the director does is to show realistically the excesses and abuses of newcomers to power, whether or not they the power is real or imagined. His treatment could apply to just about any true believers, from Soviets to Nazis to Maoists, to theTaliban, to other religious fundamentalists, toyou name it. Just look around.
There have been, alas, very few happy radical upheavals such as the "Velvet Revolution" which not long ago freed Czechoslovakia from its Communist yoke.
"The Lady and the Duke" is in five episodes, from 1790 to 1793. There are no traditional transitions between them. Each part shifts to the next with a text on the screen, a sort of expanded intertitles, kissin' cousins to those of silent classics by, for instance, D.W. Griffith.
The drama is heightened during the period just preceding that of The Terror (the time between June 1793 and July 1794 that witnessed seriatim executions.) The guillotine was already working. Citizen Elliott stuck her neck out, figuratively and almost physically, with her political stance and her own faithfulness to a disappearing monarchy.
My modest descriptions and comments may leave my readers thinking that this work is somewhat akin to a play. That is not the case--unless persons familiar with Rohmer's movies feel that the stress of dialogue gives us a somewhat theatrical tint.
What, in fact happens, is that Rohmer has always been an innovator and created his own genre. "The Lady and the Duke" may, at first sight (and hearing) seem to be a big leap into a "different-from-other-Rohmers" level. But look closely and you will probably decide that this not the case. Rohmer has simply (?) put old wines in new bottles.
Who should see this movie? The many Rohmerites; all those interested in cine-techniques; or in history; or in great performances; or in maverick approaches to film; or in originality that does not shout its name; or, simply, in France and its culture. Did I leave anything out?