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When I heard about the French Revolution, my reaction was that I was against it.
    -Jeffrey Hart
I think that in order to build, we mustn't destroy... That's why, politically, I'm a reformist rather than a revolutionary.
    -Eric Rohmer, 1983 interview with Jean Narboni

The first of the several pleasures in this terrific film is its great beauty and unique look, which Mr. Rohmer described in an interview (-INTERVIEW: with Eric Rohmer (Aurelien Ferenzi, Senses of Cinema)):
AF: How did you have the scenic backgrounds made?

ER: They were painted by Jean-Baptiste Marot. We designed them together in the appropriate period style and according to the requirements of the mise en sc?ne. HervŽ Grandsart did the preliminary documentary research. We worked from pictures and engravings, but also from street maps of the period. The interiors are not real locations. They were all built in an adjoining studio by the set designer, Antoine Fontaine, and the rigger, JŽr™me Pouvaret. To me, this work was not just a matter of being meticulous it was about striving for an authenticity that underpins the whole film. At heart, I wasn't especially intent on making a film about the Revolution. I don't much like being pegged as an 18th century buff! Even though I've sometimes been compared to Marivaux, it isn't my favourite century.

AF: Was your approach comparable to the way you made Perceval: using pictures from the period to depict the period itself?

ER: Yes. I don't much care for photographic reality. In this film, I depict the Revolution as people would have seen it at the time. And I try to make the characters more like the reality you find in paintings. The opening scenes of the film are pictures, and I'd be pleased if the uninformed spectator thought they were period paintings and was surprised when they suddenly come to life.
The Wife and I, being "uninformed spectators", were completely fooled by this opening, which is almost magical, with the characters seeming to spring to life.

The story that follows is nearly as unique, a magisterial dismissal of the French Revolution, all the more surprising for having been directed by a leading light of the French cinema, Eric Rohmer. Grace Dalrymple Elliott--whose memoir, Journal of My Life During the French Revolution, Mr. Renoir stumbled upon--was an upper class British woman, former mistress of the Prince of Wales, who left England for France and became the lover of the Duke of Orleans, cousin of Louis XVI. By the start of the film their liaison has ended, but they remain friends. In the background are the early stirrings of the Revolution. The Lady (Lucy Russell) is fiercely loyal to the King and Queen, but the Duke (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), for reasons, mostly, of jealousy and hurt feelings, is no more than ambivalent.

As the pace of events quickens--though not the pace of the film, which, be warned, is rather stately--the interests and passions of the two begin to diverge. The Lady remains loyal to King and Queen, despite the dangers from increasingly unruly revolutionaries, while the Duke imagines that he can use the Revolution to rise to power, and that he can control its path. Tensions between them flare when the Lady takes in a wanted man, the Marquis de Champcenetz, and expects the Duke to help him escape Paris. The Duke, whose royal origins make him suspect anyway, fears being caught and only reluctantly agrees to help.

The true break between them comes when the fate of the King is being decided. Grace secures a grudging pledge from the Duke that he will not vote for death at the King's trial. He agrees that though he can not vote with the King and still maintain his own political viability, he will arrange to be absent from the vote on punishment. However, as Grace and friends are gathered together, with messengers bringing them news of the proceedings, the Duke proceeds not only to betray his promise but is the deciding vote in favor of regicide.

France proceeds to descend into terror, claiming many of Grace's friends and the Duke, who she reconciles with when it's clear he's doomed, as the Revolution eats its own. There's one frightening episode where she's discovered to be in possession of correspondence between a British officer and the politician Charles Fox, so she's suspected of spying. But she first shames the committee interrogating her by her refusal to read a letter not intended for her and then when they try to read it but realize they've no translator, they have to turn to her, and the letter contains nothing but (misguided) praise for the Revolution, leaving her accusers further dishonored.

The Lady obviously survived to write her memoir which in turn captured the attention of Mr. Rohmer. Here he's told the story entirely from her perspective and the result--whether entirely accurate or not--is a portrayal of her as embodying all of the best traits that were supposed to be associated with nobility--she's loyal, brave, generous, and devoted to God. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries are no more than a destructive rabble, with no redeeming qualities. Between them are a few soldiers who, though sympathetic to the Revolution, try to behave decently. And, of course, the Duke, who comes off worst of all--he debases himself and abandons the ideals of his class in the mistaken belief that revolution can be a restorative for a sick society. Instead, as it must, the Revolution destroys mindlessly.

The cumulative effect of the film is like walking through an exhibition hall, and studying the unraveling catastrophe of the French Revolution in a series of beautiful but eventually grim paintings. Some may find it lacks action, but it certainly has drama--the human drama of one woman who kept the faith. And the aptly-named Grace emerges as a genuine counter-revolutionary heroine, of film and history.

(Reviewed:29-Jan-03)

Grade: (A+)

Websites:

See also:


    -OFFICIAL SITE: The Lady and the Duke (Sony Pictures)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Eric Rohmer (Imdb.com)
    -INFO: L' Anglaise et le duc (2001) (Imdb.com) -TRIBUTE: The Persistent Pleasures of Eric Rohmer: Geoffrey O'Brien, NY Review of Books)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview with Eric Rohmer (Aurelien Ferenzi, Senses of Cinema)
    -Tales of Rohmer (Film Forum)
    -Eric Rohmer (Terry Ballard)
    -My Night at Rohmer's
    -Derek Malcolm's Century of Films: Eric Rohmer: La Collectionneuse
    -Rohmer Talk (compiled by Bill Mousoulis, Senses of Cinema)
    -PROFILE: Eric Rohmer: A Book of Love, a Chapter at a Time (A. O. SCOTT, February 11, 2001, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Silver Screen, Golden Talent Like BOXOFFICE Born in 1920, French Filmmaker Eric Rohmer Has Been Delighting Sophisticated Moviegoers for 80 Years (Wade Major, Box Office Online)
    -ESSAY: Magical Realism in Conte d'automne (Autumn Tale, 1998) (Fiona A. Villella, Senses of Cinema)
    -ESSAY: Some Kind of Liar: A Summer's Tale (Adrian Martin, Senses of Cinema)
    -ESSAY: Eric Rohmer's Talking Cures (Kent Jones, February 7 - 13, 2001, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY: Of dilemmas and desire: the unique cinema of Eric Rohmer (British Film Institute)
    -INTERVIEW: The French revolutionary: Even at 81, director Eric Rohmer is still bucking the trends. (Tobias Grey, September 2, 2001, The Observer)
    -PROFILE: Roads lead to Rohmer: Looking for an actress about to have greatness thrust upon her? Look no further than Lucy Russell (Akin Ojumu, December 30, 2001, The Observer)
    -INTERVIEW: Off with her head: Lucy Russell used to be a temp. Now she's enraging the French in Eric Rohmer's monarchist movie. Stuart Jeffries, February 14, 2002, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for The Lady and the Duke (MetaCritic)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for The Lady and the Duke (Movie Review Query Index)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (James Bowman)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (David Sterritt, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (A. O. Scott, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Sarah Kaufman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Liam Lacey, Globe & Mail)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Philip French, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (LIZ BRAUN, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Philip Horne, Sight and Sound)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (J Hoberman, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Erica Abeel, Film Journal International)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (John Demetry, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Jason Anderson, Eye Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Stephen Applebaum, BBC)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Ed Gonzalez, Slant)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Scott Tobias, Onion AV Club)
    -REVIEW: of The Lady and the Duke (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader)
    -REVIEW: of The Autumn Tale (Alan A. Stone, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of My Night at Maud's (strictly film school)
    -REVIEW: of Claire's Knee (David Denby, The New Yorker)

GENERAL:
    ORLEANS, Philip I, DUKE OF (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911)

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