RIDICULE *** 1/2
This has not changed much in that land, although it has no longer the sometimes paroxystic levels found in the chic salons during the second half of the 17th century and all of the 18th.
In 1783 Baron Ponceludon de Malavoy lives in a southern area of swamplands that breed mosquitoes that have been killing hordes of people. He is an engineer with a grand plan of draining the swamps. Lacking the wherewithal , he gets on his horse and rides up to Versailles where the court lives its dolce vita. The French Revolution is only six years away, but no aristocrat shown seems conscious of its coming or of anything except entertainment and being noticed by the King.
The King is Louis XVI, who will be guillotined in a few years, as will his wife Marie-Antoinette and many of the courtiers. Ponceludon naively hopes to gain access to His Majesty and ask him for life-saving funds. He is rapidly taken in hand by a protector, the Marquis de Bellegarde, who is also a doctor (his talents are gently mocked by the movie) and a scientist. His experiments have impoverished him, but he is nonetheless in good standing at Versailles.
The Marquis opens the idealist visitor's eyes to the facts of life at the court. One needs not only sponsors but wit in a high society where people constantly play games and are deadly bored by anything approaching serious issues. They only take seriously unseriousness, "legerete" (lightness) superficiality. They practice "esprit" (wit), "mots" (bons mots), puns, paradoxes, cutting remarks, rapier repartees, quotable quips or amusing verse. The Marquis himself is strong along those lines. Nothing upsets him more than when after a gathering he thinks of a witticism he could have made earlier.
A clever quip and your fortune may be made. A bad one or one at your expense, and you are covered with ridicule and disgraced. Luckily, Ponceludon is not a titled bumpkin from the provinces, but is well read and has a great gift for words. The Marquis introduces him to the nobility, especially to a beautiful Countess, Madame de Blayac, one of many passing mistresses of the king. She sleeps with her household clergyman, the Abbe de Vilecourt.
Both the Countess and her Abbe have a fearful talent for "esprit. " This goes beyond games. Wit can be --and often is-- used cruelly, to put down people and insult them, to exact private vengeance, sometimes to reduce them to a form of dishonor through verbal dueling. Words are like swords dipped in honey or perfume, but still lethal. It's all done with exquisite elegance that never includes the use of vulgar epithets or even ordinary insults. "Imbecile" and "idiot" are reserved for social inferiors.
All this goes hand in hand with promiscuity, amorality and immorality --and with highly amusing situations, among them a blase nobleman returning from England where he has discovered "humour. " A pity the film does not dig deeper in comparisons between wit and humour.
Ponceludon is a hit at Versailles, but must conform to the rules. In just days he spends on clothes his income for a year. He starts using foppish powder and lipstick. His mentor advises him not to laugh at his own jokes and, whenever he laughs, not to do it with his mouth open. Yet if Ponceludon meets with success, the King is still hard to reach. Among other stumbling blocks is the necessity to prove to the court genealogist that his nobility does go back to the year 1199!
Meanwhile back at the Marquis's country home the Baron has met, argued with and predictably fallen in love with Mathilde, the daughter of the Marquis, a scientist herself (she works on diving suits), a pure young woman who is the opposite of the corrupt courtiers, a daughter whom her father brought up by the precepts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with naturalness and freedom. (She's really an anachronistic, late 20th Century young lady).
Matters get complicated. Mathilde, needing funds for her experiments, has almost accepted to marry a rich old man who is looking forward to becoming a widower. The scene of a cynical prenuptial contract is a howl. Ponceludon is tempted by his new milieu, but he holds steady in his plans to rescue his people back home. Finally, he does get into the King's good grace. . .
There's a surprising amount of plot, but it is subservient to the minute-by-minute details. The developments include the main figures, a duel, a touching sequence around the Abbe de l'Epee (a real figure) and his school for deaf-mutes, in which the court's snobs get their comeuppance, and more. . .
The movie was the opener at the 1996 Cannes Festival. It is beautifully photographed and scored, with a profusion of beautiful interiors, exteriors, costumes and artifacts. The casting is perfect, as are all the delicious performances. Remarkably, the film has three newcomers to the screen: Berling (Ponceludon), Godreche (Mathilde) and scriptwriter Waterhouse.
Director Leconte, known in France for comedies not exported to the USA, has a sense of humot that he sneaks even into such films as the thriller "Monsieur Hire, " and the very offbeat love story "The Hairdresser's Wife. " He has stated that he did not attempt to catch with total authenticity the looks, moods, sounds or lifestyles of the period. Or to draw parallels between that society and ours. No matter. His quirky recreation is convincing, his subject is original and the film drips with Frenchness as much as any I can think of.