History invariably comes handed down to us via representations; it’s an inescapable fact, a fact that the master French director embraces within the first few frames of his astonishing foray into digital film, the new feature The Lady and the Duke
(though I think I prefer the real translation, The Englishwoman and the Duke
). Right from the start, the Paris of the early 1790s (the film takes place between 1791 and 1794), as well as the film’s main characters, the Scottish-born Royalist Grace Elliot, and her former lover, the Duke d’Orleans (ironically a Bourbon and a supporter of the Revolution), are conveyed to us by ways of painting, portraiture, and engraving, as a narrator dryly intones the current political and romantic situation of the characters in a few terse sentences (the concern with representation is probably paramount to Rohmer, since this film, which is politically conservative, challenges the official ideology of the Revolution, with it’s attendent representations and iconography). This is all of the direct contextual information that the film conveys, before plunging into a story where the personal is the political. Familiarity with the historical situation is assumed, and the film make few allowances for the casual observer, which I guess could open the film to charges that it is too historically specific, fully understandable to only a small minority, of presumably French intellectuals (similar charges have been leveled at the films of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsaio-hsien, whose main intellectual concern has been the historical process of the construction of a Taiwanese identity, which continues even in his modern films). Frankly, I think that such charges are unfair, I understood the politics and historical events of the film, and I have only a passing familiarity with the French Revolution (though I am a history buff, attentive to, and loving, the minutiae of historical detail), and Rohmer manages to intertwine the overtly political aspects of the film with a sublimated love affair between Grace and the Duke (the lowest point of their relationship coincides with the the Duke casting a vote for the execution of Louis XV, a point in the movie where Grace and the Duke are somewhat estranged, as he has a new lover; Grace sees the vote for execution of her beloved King as a personal betrayal).
The Lady and the Duke
is probably best known for the digital city and landscapes that Rohmer had created (all exteriors where shot in front of blue and green screens and the backgrounds where matted in) for his characters to interact in, but Rohmer’s digital landscape makes no pretense at realism, instead veering, in away, towards the brilliant stylization of his last period film, Perceval Le Gallois
. The Paris, and surrounding countryside (parts of the film take place in a provincial town near Paris called Medouen), of the 1790s is rendered in the style of 18th century French paintings; they are literally beautiful tableaux come to life (one of the most impressive of the digital landscapes involves a mob parading through the streets of Paris with the head of an aristocrat; the mob stretches into the horizon of the painting; another had painted boats moving about on a painted Seine). Painting is a familiar trope for the film, as the politics of the film descend from utopian idealism to bloody, authoritarian nightmare, the quality of the lighting, interior decor, and costumes changes from the lighter, airier vestiges of aristocratic Rococco to the stark severity and austerity of Neo-Classicism. Many a history class or television show has displayed the differences, the gulfs between the eras, by contrasting the frou-frou (as my Art History professor once referred to it) art of the Rococco, like that of Watteau, with the later art of Neo-Classicism, like David. The literary representation is not left out, the film is basically a triptych, divided by titles marking the year (1791, 1792, and 1793), and interspersed with quotes from the book that the film is supposedly based on, some of which appear on black and white title cards, others superimposed upon the visual image itself. The entire movie is shaped like a chronicle or diary, events are not carefully plotted in a classical Hollywood way, they seem to unfold, and the passage of time can sometimes be hard to ascertain (again, this is in a similar vein to the rest of Rohmer’s oeuvre).
While in it’s own, special, way a spectacle, the digital exteriors are also an anti-spectacle, feeding into Rohmer’s overall anti-epic mise-en-scene, devoid of the pomp and circumstance usually accorded to the historical epic. The staging of most scenes, which surprise, surprise for a Rohmer film, are conversations, is done naturalistically, simply, economically; the camera moves only sparingly, scenes are deftly cut together; their is little background music, and transitions are accomplished by a straight cut, a cut to a title card, or a dissolve. The use of DV, the flatness of the lighting, and the dampening of the color, pay off, draining the events of the aura of the “special” and making them almost mundane. The treatment of the more important historical events is also spartan, most of them occur off camera, alluded to in the dialogue, or in the often brilliant usage of the background noise. Rohmer’s sparing use of effect pays off in several brilliant scenes: the before mentioned mob scene, the brilliant staging of the execution of Louis XV (Grace and her maid stand atop a hill overlooking Paris watching through a spyglass, while Grace hopes that the people will free her beloved king; the far away events are conveyed by the faints rumbles of a cannon firing, and the cheers of the mob); the scene where Grace is hauled before the Comite Surveillance, how the camera moves across the lines of faces in the front row, from left to right, a continuum from a sympathizer to a radical Jacobin, who proceeds to berate and interrogate her, even after her acquittal (interestingly, this scene hinges on the contents of a letter written by an English liberal sympathizer to the Revolution; and that Robespierre hardly notices her; Rohmer interestingly theorized in an interview in Cahiers du Cinema
that Grace was a double-agent), and then their is the final, brilliant sequence (I will get to that later).
I was really impressed by the acting of Lucy Russell as Grace. Even though she was Scottish and the former lover of the Prince of Wales, she had adopted Louis XV and Marie Antoinette as her own sovereigns, and she seems to be the only one, with a few exceptions, who reacts with genuine moral outrage, horror, and sadness as the carnage unfold around her; the French people, aristocrats and commoners alike, are a bunch of pragmatists, revolutionaries, and Jacobins, whose outrage, in general, is kept muted or covered in reserve. I liked the scene when she was trying to get back to Paris and is trying to trick the guards, her once accentless French, suddenly becomes very halting and Anglicized. I can also see the passion and frustration that Grace felt towards the Duke d’Orleans, who was unswervingly loyal, kind, and idealistic (it’s almost tragic by the time that he realizes his folly of his political alliances, it is too late)
I thought the final sequence of the film was brilliant. With the arrest of the Duke, the camera comes to rest on a portrait of the Duke in Grace’s house (recently reinstalled on the wall after Grace and the Duke make up). Then a cut to a scene of aristocrats that are herded into a dungeon-like cell, to await their fate on the guillotine of the Terrors; they all stand rigid, unmoving, with then imprisoned Grace at the center of the frame, illuminated with a shaft of light. From behind her, a nobleman walks out of the crowd and towards the camera, walking into a centered close-up, it is his turn to be executed. Then there is a series of cuts, and with each cut, a new nobleperson walks into close-up, including several characters that appeared earlier in the film. Music begins a crescendo, rising in the background, and a lot of French text, explaining the fates of both Grace and the Duke appear on the image track. I thought it to be a very powerful and effective way to end the film.