Recent Historical Films

 

 

The Lady and the Duke (E. Rohmer, 2001)
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

Director: Eric Rohmer. Script: Eric Rohmer, Grace Elliott (novel). Photo: Diane Baratier. Cast: Lucy Russell (Grace Elliott), Jean-Claude Dreyfus (Le duc Philippe d’Orléans), François Marthouret (Général Charles Dumouriez), Léonard Cobiant (Champcenetz), Caroline Morin (Nanon), Alain Libolt (Duc de Biron). Country: France. Language: French. Runtime: 128 min

 

 

Synopsis

The tale of a beautiful royalist English gentlewoman living perilously in France during the Revolution, and her sometimes affectionate, sometimes tempestuous relationship with Philippe, Duke of Orleans, a cousin of King Louis XVI but nonetheless a supporter of revolutionary ideas. The Lady manages to persuade the Duke to rescue an outlaw, but fails to keep him from voting for the King's execution.

 

From the Director

"To me, this work was not just a matter of being meticulous, it was about striving for and 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 8th century buff!" (Eric Rohmer).

 

Quotes on the Film

"Lucy Russell's performance as Elliott is utterly striking, and shows a superbly confident mastery of French dialogue. She is intelligent, sensuous and passionate, but all in the most demandingly cerebral, grown-up sense, and with an intriguingly drawn hauteur." (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian).

"A fillm of suspense, high drama and occasional humour, The Lady and the Duke examines the cost of juggling loyalties to country, king and kin" (Chris Wiegand, BBC).

"As so often, Rohmer seems to be challenging himself to make as talkative a film as possible without actually sabotaging the dramatic tension; on top of that, he has shot his costumed characters on digital video, against painted cityscapes that could hardly be mistaken for the real thing. Fortunately, the plight of his heroine is just about fraught enough to survive these contrivances, and it is fun to imagine French audiences, schooled in the glories of the period, watching the parade of squabbles, whispers, and petty suspicions that is staged by a skeptical director.". (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker).

 

Press Clippings

 

By Kenneth Turan

The director's experiment uses technology to poetic effect iin a historical piece about upheaval in France.

This fascinating experiment plays as more of a poetic than a strict reality, creating an intriguing species of artifice that gives "The Lady and the Duke" something of a theatrical air. Just as interesting, if not more so, is how Rohmer integrates his very contemporary concerns into a period drama, how he creates characters who manage to be true to our times as well as their own.

While a certain familiarity with the French Revolution is helpful, even viewers who don't know from Robespierre will appreciate the qualities Rohmer brings to all his films. For the lady and the duke of the title have one of those intricate, talky relationships all Rohmer couples have, one characterized by intellectual sparring, impossible situations and clashes of wills.

The lady, Grace Elliot, gracefully played by Lucy Russell (of Christopher Nolan's debut film, "Following"), was once the mistress of the prince of Wales. She left him and moved to France for the duke of Orleans, a cousin of Louis XVI. By the time the film opens in 1790, a year after the fall of the Bastille, the affair is over but Grace has remained in France and she and the duke have stayed close friends.

But just because they're friends doesn't mean they can't (and don't) have powerful political arguments. Grace is an unapologetic royalist, a close friend of Marie Antoinette, who believes strongly in the king. By contrast, the duke, the king's cousin, says he feels much "more French than Bourbon" (and in fact was eventually to change his family name to Egalite). Organized around five specific moments in the revolution, Rohmer's fluid drama reveals personalities as it shows how lady and duke responded to the momentous times they were living through.

The duke, convincingly played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus ("Delicatessen," "The City of Lost Children"), comes across as both oily and earnest, an aristocrat trying hard to be a man of the people. A citizen with more passion than intellect, he is likely, as Grace understands, to be led astray and become the prisoner rather than the leader of his more extreme followers.

As for Grace, the dangers of the revolution enable her to come into her own. Always a decisive woman used to doing what she wants to do when she wants to do it, Grace discovers untapped pools of fortitude and resilience to call upon as she needs them.

This is especially the case when she finds herself, in a typically impossible Rohmer predicament--albeit one with potential consequences more serious than usual for his films--risking her life to help a man she despises escape from the clutches of revolutionary justice. Grace is so intrepid you instinctively feel this is the section that made the filmmaker cast his lot with her character.

Although "The Lady and the Duke" has some large-scale crowd sequences (D.W. Griffith's "Orphans of the Storm" was one of the films Rohmer viewed before the start of production, and it shows), it's at its best in its most intimate moments, in depicting how complicated the reality of these events was for those forced to live through them. "The revolution will be of great use to our children and grandchildren," the duke says, speaking for the film, "though it is terrible to witness."

(Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2002).

 

 

By A. O. Scott

Two Views of Honor, One of Love.

"The Lady and the Duke" was shown as part of last year's New York Film Festival. Following are excerpts from A. O. Scott's review, which appeared in The New York Times on Oct. 5. The film, in French with English subtitles, opens today in Manhattan.

On two previous occasions, with "The Marquise of O" in 1975 and "Perceval" three years later, Eric Rohmer shifted his attention from the intricacies of modern love and ventured into the terrain of period drama. His new film, "The Lady and the Duke," takes place during the French Revolution.

Its subject is the nature of honor in a time of political terror, but "The Lady and the Duke" is nonetheless astonishingly and reassuringly a Rohmer film. Its action, that is, consists mainly of talk between men and women, the title characters in particular, whose intense feelings tug against the codes of social behavior they inhabit. Their arguments are decorous but passionate, and their quintessentially Gallic music comes across even to people who don't speak French.

The lady in question is Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), an Englishwoman who lived in Paris during the revolution and whose journals are the movie's source. Elliott, or Citoyenne Elliott, as the revolutionary authorities punctiliously address her, had been the lover of the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) and also of the Duke of Orléans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), cousin of King Louis XVI and father of the future monarch Louis Philippe.

Her relations with the duke are marked by courtesy, affection and political differences that become increasingly vehement. The duke, a jowly sensualist, sees himself as a moderate revolutionary who owes greater allegiance to his nation than to his royal bloodline. His friend is unswerving in her loyalty to the king of her adopted nation and appalled at the bloody spectacle of accelerating terror.

Their contrasting views are emphasized and complicated by differences in character. The duke, whose warmth and decency Grace cherishes, nonetheless has an expedient conception of honor and a fatally vague idea of his own political principles.

He excuses the blood bath that has consumed several members of his family on the grounds that the transformation of society is a bloody process and that future generations will benefit from the changes forced on French society by the Jacobins.

But he is too weak to be the master of events ? "I am the slave to a faction," he complains ? and ultimately votes, in violation of a promise to Grace (and perhaps of his own conscience as well), for the execution of his cousin the king. He seems constant only in his devotion to Grace.

She, on the other hand, is the embodiment of aristocratic virtue and resilience under duress. She flees Paris in January 1792, on the day of Louis XVI's capture, and returns in time for the September massacres of that year, during which she sees the head of a close friend paraded about the streets on a stake. Nonetheless, risking her own life and liberty, she protects a fugitive from revolutionary justice. And as the times become more uncertain, her resolve and resourcefulness seem only to grow.

The moral dilemmas that Grace and the Duke face are diagrammed, in Mr. Rohmer's inimitable fashion, with equal measures of clarity and complexity. The director manages to evade both the stuffy antiquarianism and the pandering anachronism that subvert so many cinematic attempts at historical inquiry.

His characters are neither costumed moderns, just like us only with better furniture, nor quaint curiosities whose odd customs we observe with smug condescension. They seem at once entirely real and utterly of their time. And the time itself feels not so much reconstructed as witnessed.

This is a consequence not only of Ms. Russell and Mr. Dreyfus's passionate, restrained performances but also of Mr. Rohmer's technical ingenuity. Rather than build sets to replicate the vanished Paris of the 18th century, the director commissioned a series of painted backdrops that closely mimic the prints and paintings of the era onto which the actors have been superimposed.

The cityscapes and countrysides are flat, static tableaus whose lucid perspectives reproduce the visual culture of the time. These compositions represent, both literally and metaphorically, how the lady and the duke saw the world. Mr. Rohmer uses the flat, washed-out texture of digital video to enhance this effect. If cinema had been around to capture the chaos of France in the 1790's, one imagines it would look something like this.

(The New York Times, May 10, 2002).