The Lady and the Duke (2001)
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Having once walked out of an Eric Rohmer movie (`Clair's Knee') rather than die of boredom, my expectations were not high. This movie (taken from Graces' memoirs) is mostly talk - gentlewomen did not, after all, engage in much action but she does harbour an aristocratic fugitive at one point, to the Duke's dismay. Grace's relationship with her ex-lover, the portly and rather pompous Duke (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), is an intriguing one. She is not able to exercise much influence over him, not because of any lack of persuasive powers, but because he is too weak and irresolute to follow her advice. As a foreign woman living alone (she was widowed a year or two previously), she needs a powerful friend or two, but the Duke, for all his courtly manner, isn't a lot of help.
The cast weave in and out of stylised (and digitised) backdrops and this production style fits in well with the historical setting. The sets are intended to be seen as backdrops, unlike, say, the Coliseum scene in `Gladiator'). This has the effect of focusing the audience on the actors rather than be distracted by the set. It was brave of Rohmer to adopt such an innovative format, but it works well here. There are a few dramatic moments such as when Grace is hauled before the local revolutionary committee on suspicion of spying for Britain (naturally the most handsome revolutionary takes her side). It is however basically a talk show (`what I did in the revolution I hated'), and often rather slow. Lucy Russell, though, is quite compelling as Grace, and this time at least I was not driven from the theatre.
The film is fascinating on several levels. The relationship between the Lady and the Duke is at some levels a doomed love story. They are interestingly former not current lovers but continue to have fond (if not strong) regard for each other despite differing political viewpoints and comprimised actions during the ups and downs of the revolution & I found it interesting watching the strains placed on this relationship by the buffeting of historical events. I think this relationship is at the core of the film. Though I did enjoy the political side of the film. It is somewhat refreshing to see a historical epic from the side of the losers (the despised aristocracy). Rohmer resists the obvious counter point in the film of the film in showing a side/viewpoint of the poor majority. Maybe he assumed that most film goers would be aware of the social/political/economic conditions that lead to the revolution. Whatever the reason I think the film is stronger for it because we see the events through the eyes of the Lady and the fear and terror of the Royalists (and moderate revolutionaries ultimately consumed by the more extreme fires of radicalism). The victims are shown as human beings and not some carictures.
Having said that I enjoyed some of the ambiguities of the film. The aristocrat the lady helps is someone she held no particular high regard for in the Royalist days, and indeed first helps him only out of a sense of duty. Even Robiespierre, the radical, is shown briefly in the film. Instead of some frothing of the mouth caricture he is shown as a focused almost reasonable type. He stops one of his underlings arresting the Lady at a revolutionary tribunal saying the revolution has more important things to worry about. I think possibly these interesting ambiguities arise from the fact the story is based on the actual experiences of the Scottish Lady who transcribed them after her eventual escape to Britain after the revolution.
Finally a commendation to the two actors (the Lady and the Duke) who I really enjoyed. The Duke was particulary good,he was the right mixture of idealist,charmer and self important but endearing pomposity and you can see why despite all his faults the Lady was still hung up on him.
The strange story of Grace Elliott, a noble lady who had been the mistress of the king of England and of the French Duc d'Orleans, holds our attention. The setting is Paris during the days that followed the French Revolution. The country was in turmoil and the power was in the hands of the people, who couldn't care less for the aristocrats. The images show the agitators running around with heads of famous people right after their trip to the guillotine.
Grace relation with the Duc had ended, but she remains a true friend to the great man that is in danger, himself, of losing his own head. Grace moves through all the horrors around her without being able of an escape. She even has an enemy in her own house, in the form of the cook, Pulcherie, who would not hesitate to denounce her at the least provocation.
Watching the movie, at times, gives the viewer the impression one is going on a trip through the Louvre watching those huge canvases that depict this crucial era of the French history. Rather than finding the digitalization process distracting, we found it to enhance the film in many ways.
Lucy Russell, as Grace Elliott, does a fine job to portray this woman who saw a lot during her lifetime. Her French seems to be excellent, as it appears she is fluent in it. As the Duc d'Orleans, Jean Claude Dreyfus made a fantastic contribution making us believe he is the nobleman himself without any effort. The supporting cast also was great. As an ensemble piece Mr. Rohmer gets good performances all around.
For lovers of history, "The Lady and the Duke" will be an interesting movie to watch thanks to the vision of Eric Rohmer.
Rohmer has always been accused of being "talky." Well, he is, but to me that's a compliment, not a criticism. Shakespeare was talky, too. Is there a talkier play than "Hamlet?" Whenever the subject, or theme, of a work of art consists of ideas and conflicts over values, there must of necessity be a discussion of these ideas and values, an that is largely what this film is all about. Aristocracy and noble birth vs. egalitarianism; loyalty to old friends that is put to the ultimate test when that friend takes what we believe to be a wrong path; the value of human life and the responsibility to help save that life, even if the person possessing that life is not so nice, or even despicable. (Anyone ever hear of Dostoyevsky, or "Crime and Punishment?") These are what this film is all about.
The two leads in this film are impeccable, as if they were born to play these roles. Lucy Russell, who is English and speaks French as her second language, is especially brilliant. Do yourself a favor and see this riveting film. It may be the last film by this screen Master.
The story is an essentially true story about a woman named Grace Elliott--a very, very interesting lady. She was the mistress of the future King George IV of Britain and after giving birth to an illegitimate child, she left to live in France. There she became the mistress of the King of France's cousin, the Duke of Orleans. However, the timing for all this was very poor. That's because a few years later, the French Revolution arrived--and her now ex-lover, the Duke, begs her to leave the country. She insists she's safe and time passes. And, as time passes, the country becomes more paranoid and more self-destructive--killing off aristocrats and foreigners in the wake of a now insane revolution.
At this point in time, the Duke and Elliott have changed. Now, the liberal-minded Duke has embraced the Revolution and is an official in its new government. She, on the other hand, is a die-hard royalist who really should keep her opinions to herself. Yet, despite their different paths, they remained friends--though there was a lot of tension between them, as the Duke eventually consented to the execution of the King--something Elliott had a hard time forgiving. What's next for this unusual lady? See for yourself in this excellent film.
The film was based in part on the autobiography of Elliott--which was published after her death. Earlier I said the story is ESSENTIALLY true because I did some reading and found that she had a tendency to sometimes 'embellish' the facts, though what's in the film is what occurred. Overall, a fascinating look into the insanity of the French Revolution and at a particularly unusual woman. Well worth seeing.
All things considered, "The Lady and the Duke" is a fine period piece although some might find director Rohmer's technique a bit distracting. In lieu of real scenery, he films some scenes with his actors situated directly in front of large paintings of the countryside. It doesn't cheapen the movie in any way, but it is a bit excessive and overly ornate. One of his better scenes, and where he uses a real location shot, is when Ms. Elliott rides through Paris during severe upheaval and outbreaks of horrific violence. The chaos of the times is duly recorded and once again our heroine escapes with her head still on her shoulders.
"The Lady and the Duke" features excellent performances by the two leads, Russell as Elliott and Jean-Claude Dreyfus as the Duke. The rest of the cast is uniformly good. The film is informative about the events of this tragic age and is worth viewing even if one is not a student of France's Revolution. And no wonder the French turned to Napoleon after the Terror ran its course. Compared to Robespierre, Marat and their ilk, the Emperor must have seemed like a humanitarian.
The other major failing, I regret to say, is the performance of Lucy Russell in the leading role. She is in virtually every scene and the success or otherwise of the film rests on her performance. OK she is speaking a foreign language but she is incapable of expressing real emotion. Her emoting in the scene where she recounts to her friend Mme de Meyler (an excellent performance by the debutante Helena Dubiel) seeing the head on a pole caused some embarrassed laughter in the audience. Also, watch her hands when she is expressing emotion!
All in all a very disappointing film, particularly given the positive reviews on this site.
All in all, this is not the worst movie I've seen, but if you really want to get into the mindframe of 18th century nobility, then I would highly recommend the 1999 Masterpiece Theater miniseries "Aristocrats," which is far more entertaining, convincing and involving than "Lady and the Duke." If you wish to see a great film about the French Revolution, then go see "La Révolution Française" with Jane Seymour and Klaus Maria Brandauer (if you can find it), or "Danton" with Gerard Depardieu. Even the 1938 "Marie Antoinette" is more interesting than the Rohmer film, and Norma Shearer's reaction to the Princesse de Lamballe's head is a great deal more powerful than Lucy Russell's.
I am a newcomer to Rohmer?s work, having seen only two before this. But this is so intelligent, so imaginative, I must rush to see what else I can. He works with the nature of the telling by focusing on the manner of telling. Here, he selects a subject that concerns artifice and abstraction (the aristocratic manners with a former mistress, and theideals of the French revolution). And he presents them according to his understanding of how artificial and abstract they are.
The presentation is shocking. If you haven?t seen it, he has flattened all the sets by literally using paintings with people superposed. This is done inside as well where all the walls are flat and have texture painted on them. Doors, cupboards also. We are transported to a theatrical world where the actors not only perform for us, the characters perform for each other. Very clever notion that reminds us how synthetic ?normal? film is.
At the same time, we have Rohmer?s constant fixation with how abstract notions interact with reality. Here we have the French revolution. Unlike that which took place in North America the decade before, this was pure ideals not at all practicalized. (Dr Franklin was appalled.) And it was heavy with opportunists and posers. The notion of how things were, how they should be, how one should comport, what constitutes a ?nation,? or ?liberty? -- all abstractions. Presented in the form of dialog between two people who could not shape it.
Sex is the driver here, at least of the characters we see. But it is so refined, so submerged one completely forgets the moist clutch and replaces it with the unctious glance.
It seems to me that Rohmer?s relationship with his actors and the text is slight, as it should be, allowing him to focus on the space around them. Other filmmakers frame their shots around the principles and a few elements from the environment. Rohmer frames his entirely from the environment, which incidentally flattens everything -- even without the painting trick.
This is the logical extension of "Marquis," May Rohmer live long enough to go further.
Ted?s Evaluation: 3 of 4 : Worth Watching.
Set in Paris during the French Revolution, the movie, based on Grace Elliott's (Lucy Russell) "Memoirs," is a first-hand account of how she survived those heady but dangerous days. She also details her relationship with The Duke of Orleans (played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who, in contrast to herself, is a supporter of the Revolution.
True to form, you don't know whose side of history Rohmer is going to come down on. One of the earliest of the French "New Wave" filmmakers, Rohmer has often been criticized for being too conservative. After all, in the midst of the rebelling-youth-Viet-Nam days of the late 60s and 70s, he was filming romantic little confections like "Claire's Knee." But don't sell the old boy short, folks, he's always been a student of human nature, not an ideologue, and "L'Anglaise et le duc" continues to bear this out.
Rohmer's characters are never the "bad guys" nor the "good guys'; they are first and foremost human beings who are capable of exhibiting a full range of human potentialities -and limitations. That's why his movies are always provocative, and this film is no exception.
Now for the technological nuts and bolts.
Rohmer, though making his way into his 80s, is still on the cutting-edge of cinematic innovation. The look of "L'Anglaise" is like something you've never seen before. You guessed it, the old guy -like several of the festival's directors this year- has gone digital.
All of the movie's exterior scenes look as though they are taking place in their original 1780s Parisian settings. As a matter of fact, you may get so distracted from marveling at the authenticity of the film's look you may have to go back for a second screening to catch the subtleties of the film's psychological -and yes, I'll say it- political insights.
Toronto features some of the world's edgiest young filmmakers this year, as well as some of the world's oldest. And the old masters are standing there on cinema's cutting-edges right alongside the young ones.
Long live youth. Long live old age. And long live Erich Rohmer.
The next biggest flaw--an bizarre oversight which I can't fathom--is the lack of music except at the very beginning and the very end. If this movie is indeed an aristocrat's view of late 18th century France, complete with impeccable costumes and fancy furniture, shouldn't there be, at the very least, an occasional Mozart, Rousseau or Bréval sonata in the soundtrack to help us settle into the period? Instead the scenes are awkwardly silent. I never realized how distracting it can be to NOT have music in a film!
Last topic: character development. We get a nice performance from Lucy Russell as the "Englishwoman" (she did an excellent job of creating a Parisian accent tainted with Scottish roots, and when she "dumbs it down" in the scenes where she's pretending to be a tourist, it's very impressively done). But unfortunately I feel like hers was the only character that had any soul. Jean-Claude Dreyfus (the Duke), who was riveting in DELICATESSEN as the heartless villain, and equally memorable in CITY OF LOST CHILDREN as the big ole softy, never seemed to have a clear character in this film. This, I believe, is the fault of the director. He should have given Dreyfus a few closeups to allow us to see that very expressive face of his. Instead, I recall seeing only full body shots and profiles where we're not sure how genuine he is. The result is that you never trust the Duke at his words; you never know if he's a "good guy" or a "bad guy". It also doesn't help that the Lady is constantly flip-flopping her affections/hatred toward him. The resulting character confusion leads to us, the audience, becoming apathetic and distanced from the Duke.
The story itself is very interesting, but I won't get into that because I don't want to ruin anything if you decide to see the film. Overall... I really don't know what to think of this. It held my interest for two hours but was never quite satisfying. Watch it on a rainy day and judge for yourself.
Neither of these makes up for the poor script, though. The heroine's royalist sentiments are zero-dimensional ("But he's the king!"). Her flight from Paris is completely devoid of suspense. There's no indication of the smouldering romance that supposedly exists between the lead characters. But the worst part is the repetition! Characters repeat what they said in the previous scene, which was a summary of what happened in the scene before that. I sat through this twice (the flight from Paris and the return to Paris), but when it happened again (the vote), I WALKED OUT. I can't wait for digital sets to become the norm, so that people will again pay attention to the rest of the movie.
Oh, and I hope the next film about the French revolution doesn't have Republican soldiers who act like the Keystone Kops.
The film looks beautiful, with each scene designed as a period painting, like a tableaux vivant. And I expected much talking, as that's Rohmer's style. But maybe Rohmer was restrained by basing the screenplay on a real woman's writings is why this mostly felt like a docudrama version of "The Scarlet Pimpernel."
As awful as the excesses of Robespierre et al, how about some recognition that the French aristocrats were spoiled brats? I kept humming to myself: "Marat, we're poor/and the poor stay poor;" you could also pick a tune from "Les Miz."
I wasn't all that sympathetic as the central figure has to go back and forth between her city home and country manor to stay ahead of the Revolution. At one point her maid claims the pantry is bare but sure manages to lay out a fine repast. I simply didn't understand her, an English sympathizer who alternately rejects and defends her former lover and patron as he and the Revolution keep shifting political focus; I think I was supposed to sympathize with her consistency more than their political machinations, like a character out of "The Scarlet Pimpernel." Hey, the only reason she didn't go back home was her disgrace after an affair and child with the Prince of Wales or somebody.
Usually in a revolutionary period there's some groundswell of change going on in relations between men and women, but I saw none here. I once went to a Herbert Marcuse lecture that concluded with a lengthy Q & A; the last question, from an audience member far older than the rest of us acolytes, heck she had gray hair, was "Why are revolutionaries so grim?" She was hooted at and Marcuse didn't deign to respond to it seriously -- but it's the only thing of substance I remember from the whole evening. Rohmer demonstrates that counter-revolutionaries are also grim and didactic.
(originally written 8/11/2002)
There is some of the charm of Ma nuit chez Maud or Le genou de Claire, but this one leaves the impression of hammy acting mainly. Jean-Claude Dreyfus started making TV commercials then graduated to bit parts in small budget pictures (he's the butcher in Delicatessen). He does pretty well with Philippe-Egalite, but there are plenty better actors in France (what Jean-Pierre Marielle could have done with this plum). Lucy Russell does a very good job with a French role; I wanted to award her with the John Malkovich Prize for Second-Language Achievement.
The lack of any forward motion in the story-telling leaves us with just a series of animated engravings to look at. There is zero excitement; I spent most of the running time walking around the back of the theater, trying to get my pulse going.
*My rate: 7.5/10