The Lady And The Duke

2001, Movie, PG-13, 129 mins


Eighty years old when he filmed this fascinating melding of celluloid and digital video, the singular French director Eric Rohmer proves that he could probably do cutting-edge music videos for experimental/speed-metal/gangsta rappers if he wanted to. Rohmer's trademark conversational characters are as much in evidence here as in his string of talkfest fables, in which beautifully ordinary bourgeoisie try to understand their place in modern life and, more often than not, are rewarded with a glimmer of true knowledge. What makes this film different, aside from being a rare-for-Rohmer period piece — set during the French Revolution — is its deliberate, painterly staginess: Live actors play out the human drama against a diorama-like display of backgrounds created by artist Jean-Baptiste Marot. The effect is one of gorgeous puppets, a removed perspective that makes some of the most powerful political and social events in history seem like the sad, desperate flailing of monkeys. Based on the memoirs of aristocratic Scottish expatriate Grace Elliott, this is also Rohmer's most visceral film, dotted with the slow, agonizing deaths of soldiers at a time when lower-tech arms didn't kill instantly. Elliott, the Pamela Harriman of her time, was the lover and confidante of politically powerful men. As played by Lucy Russell — planets away from her floozy in FOLLOWING, one of the actress's two other films to date — Elliott is a combination of vulnerability and indomitability. A monarchist, a foreigner, a wealthy divorcée and a friend to both the French royal family and such anti-royalist Republicans as her ex-lover, the Duke of Orleans (played here by Jean-Claude Dreyfus), Elliott was constantly under suspicion by one side or the other. Committed to a sense of honor that was as foolhardy as it was noble, she risked the guillotine to help the Marquis de Champcenetz (Léonard Cobiant), the fleeing governor of the Tuileries — though she barely knew the man and the Duke hated him. As much Harriet Tubman as Pamela Harriman, the remarkable Elliott is also, in Rohmer's treatment, revealed to be just a person. The fact that Rohmer extends this courtesy to all the main players, including the defecting Général Charles Dumouriez (François Marthouret), gives his film the feel of a backstage look at history. And that, for all the film's artful artifice, is what makes this tale of will and Grace more than the sum of its paintings. (In French, with subtitles.) leave a comment --Frank Lovece

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The Lady And The Duke
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