Friday, January 15, 2010
The Lady and the Duke
The Lady and the Duke is one of Eric Rohmer's atypical ventures into historical drama. The interesting thing about Rohmer's period films — like the theatrical, literary Perceval le Gallois or The Marquise of O... — is that they are generally far more overtly stylized and deconstructive than the modern romantic comedies for which he is known. It is as though the distance of the past, the abstraction of history, allows Rohmer the license to filter these events through extreme visual and aesthetic systems. In this film, he interprets the past specifically through the lens of its paintings. The film is set during the French Revolution, and Rohmer captures the feel of this era by digitally combining his sets and actors with paintings layered into the background. The effect is startling and strangely haunting. During the film's opening, onscreen text establishes the setting and the basic history of the revolution, while Rohmer collages together various paintings from the era. After this introduction, several of the paintings repeat, but this time the people within the paintings begin to move. Crowd scenes come to life, bustling with activity, moving within this static world. When Rohmer cuts to closeups, the texture of the brushstrokes within these canvases is even visible, reminders of the artificiality of his aesthetic.
Although the film's aesthetic and historical period sets it apart from much of Rohmer's other work, like his other films it is driven by talk, and by the ideological, philosophical and emotional undercurrents obscured by and encoded within this talk. The film focuses on the Scottish emigré Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), a bold woman who was the mistress of many powerful men and who was brought to France prior to the Revolution by the older Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). She was his lover and, after their relationship ended, remained his friend and outspoken confidante, advising him about politics as the Duke became entangled in the Revolution. Even though Grace is a devout royalist, loyal to the King, while the Duke joins the Jacobins' revolt, they remain close even as things get worse and worse all around them.
At the heart of the film is, as usual with Rohmer, a moral inquiry. It's all about conscience and the willingness to acquiesce or go along with social horrors. The Duke is a weak-willed, basically foolish man, easily manipulated and convinced of his own rightness even when all evidence begins to pile up to the contrary. Despite his aristocratic status, he supports the Jacobins out of an idealistic belief that the common people of the country deserve equality and liberty that isn't offered to them under a monarchy. Even though King Louis XV is his cousin, the Duke opposes the monarchy and rallies behind the revolutionaries. In multiple visits with Grace, they argue about the politics of the time, and she attempts, mostly in vain, to convince him that the brutality and violence of the Revolution is not justified by his ideals, however well-intentioned they might be. Grace is a fearless and principled woman, unafraid to speak her mind even as her opinions become unpopular and even treasonous. While everyone around her tries to keep their opinions in check, maintaining the rules of decorum and tradition as though they were still living in polite society, Grace alone seems to understand how important it is to speak out, to try to sway the opinions of those who support the Jacobins even as they're shocked by the violence committed in the name of the Revolution. Grace preserves her nobility and class, and her status, but is too much of a determined, intelligent woman to play the role of the "good citizen."
Of course, the irony of the film's recurring dialogue about being a "good citizen" is that citizenship in this society requires a willingness to tacitly endorse inhumanity and horror. In one of the film's most striking images, a massed crowd marches while holding aloft a stake with the head of a noblewoman skewered on top. It's a stylized image like many in the film; the head is greenish and artificial-looking, with blood flowing from its ragged neck. It's a horrible icon of the Revolution's violence, and it affects the audience as viscerally as it does Grace, who witnesses it while trying to make her way through Paris to the home of a friend.
Images like this lend force to the film's moral thrust; Rohmer's allegiances are clear. He is suggesting that if platitudes about equality and freedom, about helping the working class, about overthrowing tyrants, lead to this, then the ideals are empty and hollow. He is not necessarily aligning himself with either the royalists or the rebels so much as he is taking a humanist slant on this material, evincing a concern for life and fairness that goes beyond abstract ideology. Towards the end of the film, Rohmer portrays the functioning of the Revolution's "justice" as a series of Kafkaesque absurdities, where suspicion furnishes its own proof and overzealous revolutionaries can levy accusations based on pure supposition and innocuous conversations. The film is a powerful critique of political violence and oppression, especially when it disguises itself in the form of a popular movement.
Of course, Rohmer explores all of these themes and ideas in his characteristic way, buried in the subtext of various conversations that dance around these issues rather than engaging with them directly. Grace and the Duke meet several times over the course of the film, and in between social niceties and exchanges of affectionate patter, they have brief outbursts of political sparring, which inevitably end with the Duke urging his former love to keep silent, not to talk politics. That's not Rohmer's way, though. Rohmer's films, where people inevitably talk about everything, support the idea that talk is the key to understanding and analyzing the substance of life, whether the conversations centers on love or spirituality, as they do in so many of Rohmer's films, or on the politics and events of the day. The Duke is essentially the film's villain because he is the enemy of such openness.
Rohmer's approach to this story is typically sensitive and probing, both ethically and aesthetically. His use of digital technology to tell this historical tale is frequently stunning; watching these paintings move and shift allows Rohmer to filter his view of history through the perspectives of the era's artists. He seamlessly integrates this art with the flat, mundane interiors, which are worn and grimy in comparison to the textured gloss of the painted scenes. These rooms look lived-in, and the props in Grace's home frequently intrude into the narrative and the mise en scène, like the way her letters and writing implements become important to the film's denouement. Rohmer's feel for nuanced emotions is as keen as ever, particularly in the scene where Grace and her maid stand on a distant hill, watching the execution of the king through a telescope. With a gorgeous painted landscape stretching off into the distance, Grace stands in all black, unable to look, seized with momentary false hopes before accepting the inevitable. The majesty of the composition, in which she and her servant are small figures within the grand scale of this painted countryside, puts her strong emotional reaction into the context of history, as one small response to the big events that change the world. For Rohmer, though, just because this story may be simply one small, provincial perspective on world-changing events, it is no less important; he privileges the individuals affected by history and the ideas they cherish and fight for.