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.


DavidEhrenstein said...

It's quite a remarkable film. Rohmer wanted to do it because her diaries are one of the few personal records of that period. He had heard the house she lived in in Paris was still standing. When he discovered this was not the case he realized he couldn't make a conventional "realist" film and so embarked on this green screen masterpiece.

Ed Howard said...

Agreed, David, it's great and unlike anything else. Interesting that he originally wanted to make a more realist work (like Triple Agent, presumably) until he realized he couldn't shoot on the real locations. That factoid reveals a lot about Rohmer's perspective on the past, his insistence on getting things right whether that means conventional "realism" or the more literary/theatrical "faithfulness" that he achieves in films like this and Perceval.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Correct. Percival adpats the visual world of paintings and tapestries of the period into cinematic terms. It doesn't reconfigure the past into modern cinematic "realism."

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

I have an award for you here...

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Hi, Ed. I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to comment on your posts in the past few months, which I've nonetheless been reading regularly and enjoying for your insights. I'm particularly looking forward to your upcoming analyses on Rohmer, a filmmaker who, for me, has in the past year gone from disliked to appreciated to finally one of my very favorites.

This is a wonderful analysis of The Lady and the Duke, particularly in your discussion of Rohmer's humanistic approach to the Revolution, although I have to slightly disagree with your claim that, in Rohmer's films, "talk is the key to understanding and analyzing the substance of life." I would argue that Rohmer had (how sad I am to use past tense!) a more ambiguous understanding of conversation and language--that talk works to draw humans self-deceptively "closer" to one another only to reveal how far apart they really are, just as Rohmer's naturalistic approach to cinema similarly works to draw us closer to characters who ultimately remain separated from us via the film screen.

In fact, I think the last sequence in this film, where all the commotion is made over Grace's harmless (even pro-revolutionary) letter, is one of Rohmer's most explicit testaments to how talk can sometimes lead one away from the truth rather than to it. Even after the letter proves Grace innocent, there are still some people left in the crowd who want to keep questioning her. Indeed, Rohmer's mastery in drawing us into the emotional intensity of this scene is so strong that I felt like shouting, "Just stop babbling and let her go home!"

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

...although, come to think of it, I suppose the continued discussion in that last scene would likely lead to the truth of her betrayal of the revolutionaries. But I suppose I mean "truth" in more emotional, identifiable terms. In any case, I stand that that the scene is an example of talk being used in an antagonistic sense. We might also keep in mind the quote by Chretien de Troyes that opens Pauline at the Beach (which I first saw only two days before Rohmer's death): "A wagging tongue bites itself."

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, J, it's great to hear that you've turned around on Rohmer, who really was one of the greats. Among other things, it's hard to imagine a more consistent oeuvre, both in terms of quality and the concerns that he addressed again and again.

I don't necessarily disagree with your point about Rohmer and conversation. He knew, of course, that talk could hide the truth just as easily as reveal it. But I think there's little doubt that he thought it was important to communicate, and in this film especially to communicate political ideas. It ultimately has no effect — Grace can't convince the Duke to abandon his revolutionary commitment, even though he frequently lies and suggests he's being convinced — but I feel like Rohmer believes in, or wants, an open discourse like this about ideas of importance. It's the fact that so many people in this era were afraid, like the Duke himself, to be open about their views, that things got so bad.

He's no idealist who believes that talking things through will always reveal the truth, though I realize the phrase you quoted could suggest that simplistic view. In fact, more often in his films the truth is buried beneath the talk, not expressed out loud, a subtle undercurrent sometimes glimpsed by his characters, sometimes only by the audience.

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Yes, I think we might say that discussion in Rohmer's films reveals a certain truth, but not one directly in the dialogue itself. Rather, the dialogue reveals a slight glimmer of a deeper truth that the characters cannot fully articulate in words. I think Claire's Knee--one of Rohmer's films that, like The Green Ray, I have went from disliking to actually kind of adoring--is a good example of this, where the protagonist's intellectualization of his fetishes tends to reveal slightly more about his character than what is actually said.

Nice thoughts, Ed. This makes me want to seek out more films by Rohmer in the next few months. There are still quite a few I haven't seen.

Ed Howard said...

One of the things I like about Rohmer is how subtle his perspective on his characters often is. In Claire's Knee and his other "Moral Tales," especially, his male protagonists talk and talk and talk, and after a while one gets the sense that Rohmer is, under the surface, deflating and critiquing all these self-involved, overly analytical men who rationalize and intellectualize their often-contemptible behavior. As much as Rohmer loves talk, he also loathes empty talk, the kind of inflated and ultimately meaningless rhetoric delivered by the Duke and other pompous political types in this film (like the Jacobin who hounds Grace towards the end), and by many other unlikable characters in his other films over the years.

Like you, over the next few weeks I'll be checking out some of the last few Rohmer films I still have to see. I've seen most of his major works at this point but still have some lesser-known ones to get to; I'll soon be posting about the great, virtually unknown 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle.