During times of revolution, the aristocracy may feel a false sense of calm in their parlor halls, discussing tumultuous events over glasses of sherry until the walls cave in on them. Adapted from Elliott's memoirs, Journal of My Life During the French Revolution, Rohmer's latest artistic tour-de-force may seem far removed from his domestic comedies (Tales of the Four Seasons, etc.), a period film set during the most violent changes in French history. Resisting the temptation for grand-scale theatrics, much of The Lady and the Duke is about quiet, decisive moments between members of the cultural elite as they determine how to proceed as the world implodes.
Grace Elliott makes for an unlikely protagonist: a headstrong, snobbish blueblood, one unprepared for the machinations of history that sweep her along. A foreigner who accepts the French King as her own, Grace's life seems defined by fancy attire and lively political debate with her former lover, the King's hot-blooded cousin, Prince Philipe, Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). The times are changing, though, and the gears inch ever closer toward violence. During The September Massacres of 1792, she is encountered by a procession of rioters brandishing the head of the Duke's sister-in-law on a stake. Rohmer makes a harsh transition from tranquil, old fashioned, almost stagy parlor scenes to the swell of an angry mob. In doing so, he achieves what Braveheart and The Patriot could not: the face of death. When Grace sees her friend's disembodied head on a pole, Rohmer's attention drifts from the societal change to one woman's reaction shot, laden with hot tears.
Grace finds herself taking in a fugitive from justice, sheltering him from the mob. Through her relationship with the Duke, she seeks a passport for this one activist's escape. Grace doesn't even understand her own actions (and the Duke reacts in stunned disbelief at how she places herself in such danger). She endures persecution from Robespierre and his gang of thuggish equalizers, ceaseless police monitoring, house searches, even a brief imprisonment for harmless international correspondence.
Maintaining her stiff upper lip and pampered life (her imperious attitude to the servants never changes), she becomes a heroine through circumstance. The events themselves are intrusions upon her person, her home, and therefore her values. Aristocracy proves a glass house, one that can barely withstand the upheaval of stones. The Duke is called to vote on the King's punishment, and despite his hours of deliberation with friends and advisors, talk means nothing in the face of bloody action (or futile inaction).
The episodic structure creates a wobbly, jarring detachment from the events of the French Revolution, which serves as metaphor but also disconnects potential audience identification. Lazy viewers (and critics) may also complain that knowledge of French history is required for enjoyment of The Lady and the Duke. That's foolery, but brings up the valid criticism that Rohmer's characters occasionally become didactic. Rohmer's imperfect but assured push toward the future remains staunch and notable for casting a cautious eye upon the past while taking bold steps forward into an uncertain future.
What may arouse interest in The Lady and the Duke outside of foreign film enthusiasts with literary and historical passions is Rohmer's use of cutting edge digital technology as a means of exploring the theme of artifice as safety net or coping mechanism. The actors were filmed against a bluescreen, then placed against painted backdrops recreating the vastness of 18th century Paris. This recreation calls attention to itself in every shot, a Technicolor dream of fanciful buildings and wide-open streets. It looks as phony as Titanic, but unlike James Cameron's debacle, The Lady and the Duke plays with the notion of false security in those walls of stone. Why? They aren't real. The very foundation Rohmer's characters stand upon is false, and in their groundlessness they must discover themselves, in all their insubstantial glory.
Aka L'Anglaise et le Duc.
That's no duke!
Run time: 129 mins
In Theaters: Friday 7th September 2001
Box Office USA: $0.1M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Compagnie Eric Rohmer
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 50 Rotten: 20
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Eric Rohmer
Producer: Françoise Etchegaray
Screenwriter: Eric Rohmer
Starring: Jean-Claude Dreyfus as Le duc d'Orléans, Lucy Russell as Grace Elliot, Rosette as Fanchette, Marie Rivière as Madame Laurent, Charlotte Véry as Vergniaud, Léonard Cobiant as Champcenetz, François Marthouret as Dumouriez, Caroline Morin as Nanon, Serge Renko as Vergniaud, Eric Viellard as Osselin, Alain Libolt as Duc de Biron
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