THE LADY AND THE DUKE (Eric Rohmer, 2001)

Eric Rohmer’s work L’Anglaise et le duc is none of these: contemporary; comedy; romance. Based on her memoir Ma Vie Sous La Révolution, it revolves around Scottish-born Grace Elliott, who is living in Paris when the Bastille topples prior to the time the film covers, 1790-1793. A courtesan and a monarchist, Elliott suffers conniptions when the Jacobin mob brandishes the head of the Princesse de Lamballe in front of her carriage window. Rohmer pitches the action from Elliott’s perspective, with which his own Roman Catholic penchant for order prompts him to identify—hence, the controversy the film engendered in France. Thus the street mobs are unwashed, grisly, barbaric, obscene; poor Louis XVI! We see Elliott as she sees herself: freshly scrubbed, meticulously coiffed; but Rohmer’s Elliott pointedly lacks the dignity with which portrait-painter Thomas Gainsborough invested her. Robbespierre’s death spared her the guillotine.
     Among Elliott’s former lovers is Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orléans, the King’s cousin and father of a future king. The two have remained friends; Elliott continues to benefit from the Duke’s largesse. They debate politics. “Philippe Égalité” sides with the revolutionary cause, but (according to Elliott) only for self-serving reasons. In truth, both do their best to keep their heads. (Philippe’s royal blood brought his neck to the fate he espoused for King and Queen.) However, the acting contest widens, deepens the ambiguous range of Rohmer’s feelings, for Jean-Claude Dreyfus’s wily performance as Philippe dominates the film.
     The film’s visual aspect is phenomenal. Rohmer commissioned Jean-Baptiste Marot to create canvases, based on period illustrations and paintings, with which the actors were combined, and the result moved to the represented location, by computer, achieving formalized splendor reminiscent of Rohmer’s medieval Perceval (1978).
     The gorgeous artifice undercuts Elliott’s smug perspective.

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