Philippe Le Guay's name is associated with comedy. Quality comedy, funny but also well written, subtle stories in tune with our times. Titles such as 'L'Année Juliette', 'The Cost of Living' 'The Women on the 6th Floor', 'Bicycling With Molière' immediately evoke this notion of intelligent humour which is peculiar to their director, whose surname (The Gay Guy) seems to want to confine him to the field of comedy.
That would be forgetting on the one hand a certain darkness that always runs through his funny films (the harmfulness of money, class struggle, difficult human relations, old age, the fate of peasants, etc). It would also mean overlooking his downright dark films, which, even if there are only two of them, do exist. Superior to all his other works, there is the extraordinary 'Nightshift' (2001), a film that blatantly describes the dominant-dominated relationship between a worker and the foreman who shamelessly mistreats him. Without a doubt the writer-director's cruelest and most beautiful film work to-date. As for his first feature film 'Les deux Fragonard' (1989), it is not a comedy either, but contrary to 'Nightshift' twelve years later, it cannot boast the noun of masterpiece.
Not that 'Les deux Fragonard' is uninteresting, on the contrary. Indeed, it introduces us to two important historical figures, the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Joaquim de Almeida, quite convincing) and his cousin, the anatomist Honoré (renamed Cyprien for reasons of understanding) Cyprien Fragonard (Robin Renucci, dark and tortured). By bringing them together for the sake of fiction, Le Guay offers us a reading of the 18th century, far from the exact but fragmented image of the Enlightenment. As the bicentenary of the French Revolution and its procession of good thinking was about to pass (the filming took place in 1988), the director chose to tell us about the drifts of this new thinking (the liberation of all morality and the realization of the most extreme fantasies leading to sheer horror, the libertine spirit not ensuring happiness) rather than its contributions to it ( limited to the condemnation of a decadent nobility, and the virtues of the progress of science and knowledge). A commendable sincerity and refusal of opportunism.
Nevertheless, this is not a really successful film. The period reenactment is good, the cast is good and the performances are overall fine (besides the two Fragonards, Sami Frey impresses as a dark nobleman with perverse tastes, and Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu brings a welcome freshness in the heavy atmosphere of this funeral tale). For a first feature film, the directing is quite correct, without however giving this Cronenberg-style subject a sufficient relief on the subject. Another negative point is the intrusive and uninspired music by Jorge Arriaga, coloring this macabre tale with fake romanticism.
But the main flaw may well consist in a certain imbalance between the two parts of this diptych. The project was, it seems to me, to evoke through Marianne, the washerwomanturned model, the dialectic of the impulses that run through every human being, that of life and that of death. By following the frivolous and libertine painter, the young girl first lets her body and her heart full of life speak,. But later, growing disappointed by Fragonard, who is more interested in her as a model than as a human being, she begins to conceive an interest in the dark aristocrat who abducted her, Simon d'Anglas as well as in the other Fragonard, the one dissecting corpses, going so far as to wound herself voluntarily and almost die of it to attract his attention. In the end only, life will triumph, but that won't be enough to counterbalance the whole heart of the film, painfully morbid. To condemn the taste for morbidity when it has deleterious effects is one thing, to make a spectacle of it is another.
The fact remains that 'Les deux Fragonard' has enough qualities not to reject it entirely. But it is important to know that it will not be a pleasant show, unless you share the fantasies of d'Anglas naturally. Otherwise, pick any other "light" film by Le Guay, no doubt you'll have a good time.
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