In what is perhaps one of his most surprising films, Eric Rohmer offers this stylised
portrayal of life in France during one of the darkest periods in her history. Although
Rohmer is perhaps better known for his perceptive and humorous observations of male-female
relationships (such as the critically acclaimed Four Seasons
cycle), the director
has also turned out some respectable period dramas, including some work for French television
and the two cinema films Die
Marquise von O...
(1976) and Perceval
(1978). L'Anglaise et le duc
amply demonstrates Rohmer's
enthusiasm and talent for the historical drama and should appeal as much to fans of Rohmer's
brand of cinema as to anyone interested in French history.
Although French cinema is especially celebrated for its historical films, the period of the Grande
Terreur between 1792 and 1794, when Robespierre and his cohorts attempted to purge Paris
of its nobility, is not well represented. Andrzej Wajda's 1982 film Danton
is perhaps the only memorable film which covers this period. This could
be a reflection of the ambivalence of the French people towards this part of their history
- pride in the creation of the French state being somewhat tempered by a lingering regret at
the loss of their monarchy.
There is little doubt which side Rohmer is on in this film, which portrays the loyalists
as maryrs, the revolutionaries as uncouth fools or repugnant bullies, and the Revolution
as inhuman ideology gone beserk. The film is based on the memoirs of an English
aristocrat, Grace Elliott, and consequently gives a personal and refreshing insight into
the Revolution, providing a strident contrast with traditional historical texts of the period
(which almost always come down on the side of the revolutionaries).
Rohmer's film is the antithesis of the traditional French period drama and is much closer
in form to a stage production than a conventional cinematic work. Heavy in dialogue
(as in most of Rohmer's films) and avoiding grand set-pieces, the film will almost certainly
disappoint those who prefer the more lavish period films in which French cinema excels.
To make up for that, the dialogue is beautifully written and perceptive, whilst strong
performances from Lucy Russell and Jean-Claude Dreyfus (who play the Lady and the Duke
of the title) makes this a compelling and illuminating film.
One controversial aspect of the film, which some critics have pillioried whilst others
have praised to the skies, is the use of painted stills as static backdrops for the exterior
scenes. These are taken from paintings of the period and are presumably intended
to give an “authentic” depiction of revolutionary France. The actors are superimposed on these pictures using
the latest digital technology - a surprisingly daring move for a comparatively conservative
film director. This device is certainly imaginative and some of the
scenes are certainly eye-catching. However, after the novelty has worn off, it is
too easy to notice the flaws and limitations in this technique and, on balance, it perhaps
works against the film, an unwelcome distraction from the understated drama.
Despite this, L'Anglaise et le duc
is well worth seeing, mainly for its
humane perspective into one of the most tumultuous periods in French history.
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Grace Elliott, a well-connected English lady, is living in Paris at the time of the French