The Lady and the Duke (2001, Eric Rohmer)

“You’ll be your own downfall.”

The Lady of the title is Grace Elliott, a Brit in France during the 1789-93 French Revolution. Actually the French title is L’anglaise et la duc but Grace is Scottish, claiming English nationality for simplicity when it’s suddenly very dangerous to be a French aristocrat in France. The movie’s intertitles and much dialogue are taken directly from her diaries.

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The Duke is one of my favorite Jean-Pierre Jeunet actors, but I didn’t recognize anyone else. Star Lucy Russell has failed to break into the Hollywood mainstream (landing such roles as “female restaurant guest” and “classy shopper #3″ in recent big films). Ach, I missed Alain Libolt (Renaud in Out 1) as the Duke of Biron.

Renaud plus 30 years:
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Grace is pure aristocracy, the very target of the revolution, and her sympathies lie with her friends whom she sees being rounded up and killed by the brutish masses. Steadfast in her devotions (though lying to stay alive), she’s contrasted with her friend the Duke, who changes with the times and ends up voting for the execution of the king. Plays like one of Rohmer’s Moral Tales only with more action, more heads on stakes, and more awesome digital backdrops of period Paris standing in for the usual stifling production design and avoidance of outdoor shots (except by filmmakers with Scorsese-budgets). Slant, in fact, called it an “economical antidote to the bloated costume drama.” Grace tries to negotiate the changing world without compromising her belief in the class system, while the Duke either adapts his morals or never had any to begin with. The main thing this movie has over the other Rohmers I’ve seen is historical interest… I delighted in the details of the revolution, about which I know very little. I thought the movie rather anti-revolution, which seems shockingly out of fashion, and one “Grunes” confirms that this was a problem:

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!

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It’s hard to know what to make of the movie’s politics. There’s also a long scene where she successfully hides a Marquis from the police. We don’t get to know the guy very well, but he’s not made out as a man who deserves to die, so bravo, I guess. When Grace is finally arrested and held for two days for possession of a letter from an Englishman, the letter ironically turns out to praise the French revolution to the heavens. These examples and the duality in the title make it seem relatively even-handed, despite being adapted from Grace’s own horrified writings.

Duke Jean-Claude Dreyfus:
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Watched this the night the director died. It got mentions on decade-end lists, with some screenshots that got stuck in my head (like the one below, peering into a painting with a telescope), so I’d planned to watch it soon anyway. I didn’t hear much when it came out, probably because of the timing (sept-oct, 2001). Beaten out for its only two César nominations by Amelie and Brotherhood of the Wolf.

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NY Times:

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.

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I’ll close by outright stealing an entire blog post by from Glenn Kenny, only because I want to always be able to find this Rohmer quote.

My films, you say, are literary: The things I say could be said in a novel. Yes, but what do I say? My characters’ discourse is not necessarily my film’s discourse.

There is certainly literary material in my tales, a preestablished novelistic plot that could be developed in writing and that is, in fact, sometimes developed in the form of a commentary. But neither the text of these commentaries, nor that of my dialogues, is my film: Rather, they are things that I film, just like the landscapes, faces, behavior, and gestures. And if you say that speech is an impure element, I no longer agree with you. Like images, it is a part of the life I film.

What I say, I do not say with words. I do not say it with images, either, with all due respect to partisans of pure cinema, who would speak with images as a deaf-mute does with his hands. After all, I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak. That is all I know how to do, but that is my true subject. The rest, I agree, is literature.
—From “Letter to a critic [concerning my Contes moraux]”

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