Lady and the Duke, The (2001): Eric Rohmer’s Historical Film

(L’Anglaise et le Duc)

Venice Film Festival 2001 (World Premiere)–At 81, French New Wave director Eric Rohmer, one of cinema’s most intelligent and original thinkers, continues to surprise with his latest work, The Lady and the Duke (L’Anglaise et le Duc), a sharply observed psychological drama set during the French Revolution and Reign of Terror.

Based on “Journal of My Life during the Revolution,” the memoirs of Grace Elliott, a Brit who lived in Paris during the tumultuous years, Rohmer’s film offers the old-fashioned pleasures of finely-etched characterizations, narrative tension, which captures the shifting political climate–above all, the glories of the French language at its richest and most eloquent. The film, which is verbose by today’s standards, divided film critics in Venice at its world premiere, which received extra-press after it was disclosed that the Cannes Festival had rejected the film for being “dull.”

Bowing at Venice, where Rohmer was awarded the Career Achievement prize, and playing in Toronto, Lady and the Duke is part of the New York Film Festival, after which it will be released by Sony Picture Classics stateside.

Bound to please arthouse crowds eager for intelligent pictures that demand concentration, the picture opened in Paris to mostly satisfying results.

In his five-decade career, Rohmer has made few overly political films, most notably The Marquis of O… (1976), from a Kleist’s novella, which won the Cannes Special Jury Prize, Perceval le Gallois (1978), and The Tree, the Mayor, and the Media Center (1993). In this respect, The Lady and the Duke is an honorable addition to Rohmer’s subgenre of literary-historical movies.

However, a closer look reveals that Lady and the Duke doesn’t really mark a point of departure for Rohmer. In fact, the film belongs to his main body of work, which represents variations on a similar theme, using similar narrative structure. Rohmer’s discourses are based on intimate verbal exchanges between characters whose intellectual inflexibility is challenged by a new set of circumstances (usually social, and in the new movie, political), with ensuing contradictions between the characters’ spoken words and their actions.

In his screenplay, Rohmer skips the background of Grace Elliott, a divorced English who was the mistress of the Prince of Wales (to whom she bore a daughter), and centers on her life in Paris, as the former lover of Prince Philippe, Duke of Orleans (Dreyfus). When the story begins, the romance between them is over, but they have remained close friends, despite political differences. On one level, Lady and the Duke unfolds as an anatomy of a solid, if precarious, bond that endures the most harrowing conditions.

Divided into five asymmetrical segments, the narrative begins on July 14, 1790, during the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, celebrated by every social class, including Grace and the Duke of Orleans, who attended the festivities along with his hated cousin, the King. Saga then jumps to August 10, 1792, when the Tuileries Palace was stormed and Louis XVI was imprisoned, with Grace barely managing to escape from Paris to her country house in Meudon.

Turbulent political upheaval defines the third (September 3, 1792) and fourth (January 21, 1793) segments, set during the massacres, including the King’s execution. It’s here that Grace and the Duke’s friendship is put to test. Though appalled by the carnage and royalist in sentiments, Grace agrees to help save a political outcast, the governor of the Tuileries Palace, who’s a personal enemy of the Duke and a man she despises. Nonetheless, Grace hides him in her bed (between mattresses), at great risk to her life, and persuades the Duke to arrange a safe trip for him to England.

It’s impossible to do justice to the story’s details, due to the frequent changes in political climate. First, the Duke becomes a member of the Revolutionary Convention, defying Grace’s wish and voting for the King’s execution, only to be arrested, tried, and executed a few months later, on April 1, 1793, which constitutes the story’s last episode. In one of history’s ironies, Grace was arrested, but released by no other than Robespierre. Then she was arrested again, though the film doesn’t cover her stay in the revolutionary jails. An epilogue informs the viewers that Grace escaped the guillotine and died in 1823, after having lived in England and France.

Rohmer is still best known for his cycle of Contes Moraux (My Night at Maud’s) and cycle of Comedies and Proverbs, including The Aviator’s Wife. In 1990, he inaugurated yet another new cycle of moral parables, Tales of Four Seasons. Lady and the Duke, like most of his films, centers on words, thoughts, and emotions–the inner worlds of individual characters–rather than plot or action, of which there’s plenty in the background. It’s a tribute to Rohmer’s talent that Lady and the Duke not only brings distant history to life in an emotionally vivid manner, but it’s the kind of picture that makes viewers want to know more about the era. Moreover, like his various films, Lady and the Duke is also enjoyable as a tale of manners and social conventions.

Technically a minimalist, Rohmer has employed modest means, economical yet fluid camera, to convey the inner emotions of his persona and their surrounding milieu. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of his new film, which relies on digital video and computer-generated images that “reconstruct” Paris in the 1790s. Very much an intimate, dialogue-oriented film, Lady suffers from artificially-induced outdoor sequences. To meet the challenge, Rohmer has reportedly commissioned painter Jean-Baptiste Marot to create canvases, based on the era’s paintings, illustrations, and maps, against which actors were digitally incorporated. It’s as if the actors were placed in paintings, and then the paintings were moved by computer.

Like Andrzej Wajda’s Danton, which is set in the same era, Lady and the Duke contains many rhetorical epiphanies. A good deal of the film’s delight derives from the sounds of an exquisitely spoken French language. In Lady, language serves an additional function: It is used as weapon in the characters’ struggle to promote their ideological goals–and save their very lives. Hence, Grace is capable of speaking a perfect French, but, when convenient, she pretends to speak with a heavy British accent. In 1982, Danton scandalized the French left, partly because its invested Robespierre with a complex intelligence, and served as a contemporary moral parable (Wajda said that Danton represents the West, and Robespierre Stalin’s East, or Poland’s Lech Walesa and General Jaruzelski, respectively). Times have changed and, so far, Lady and the Duke’s royalist feelings have stirred little intellectual debate.

The film’s greatest asset is a stunning performance from Lucy Russell, whose first film was Following, Christopher Nolan’s debut (before Memento). Always riveting to watch, Russell bears every scene with wit and resourcefulness that perfectly match those of her character. As a figure, Grace Elliott represents one of the most intriguing femmes in the rich gallery of Rohmer, a director who has explored the complex psychology of women deeper than any other filmmakers, including Hitchcock and George Cukor.

Credits

Production: A Compagnie Eric Rohmer/Pathe Image presentation
U.S. dist: Sony Pictures Classic
Int’l dist: Pathe (France)
Exec prods: Francois Ivernel, Romain Le Grand, Leonardo Glowinski Prods: Francoise Etchegaray
Scr: Rohmer, based on Grace Elliott’s memoir, “Journal of My Life during the French Revolution.”
Camera: Diane Baratier
Prod des: Antoine Fontaine
Ed: Mary Stephen

Cast:

Lucy Russell, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Francois Marthouret, Leonard Cobiant