August 10, 2007

Eric Rohmer's Lady and the Duke

"Those Enlightenment philosophers should open their eyes!"

I've been meaning to give this movie a proper review -- see the trailer here -- but it's a historical movie and I don't know much more about the French Revolution than I learned in AP European History nearly ten years ago. Nor do I have time to read history now. So much for providing value-added insight into the history, then! The movie is an account of the Revolution leading up to and including some of the Reign of Terror, based on first-hand details from the diary of Lady Grace Elliott, a Scottish noblewoman who made France her adopted country.

The greatest aspect of the movie is that it humanizes the aristocracy. I can't say how the upper classes are portrayed in mainstream French movies and TV shows, but you only need to look at Law & Order and Titanic to see how vilely caricatured they are in the US. The heroine of the title is by far the most virtuous of the characters. She remains in France despite the danger posed by unruly mobs, she upholds the standards of civility during a time of mass chaos, and she even risks her own welfare to aid the escape of a reactionary polemicist who she does not care for but who has been condemned to death.

The original title, L'Anglaise et le duc, reads "The Englishwoman" rather than just "The Lady." This highlights Elliott's virtuousness all the more, as she has made a conscious choice to contribute to French culture, and it reminds the viewer that she could easily flee to her homeland. Sometimes it is the Outsider convert who most champions the ideals of a group, much as in the case of Tom Townsend in Metropolitan, perhaps because they are more aware of what life would be like in the absence of rarefied standards. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections, located the roots of English manners in earlier French traditions and is outraged that the latter may become extinguished:

In England we are said to learn manners at second-hand from your side of the water, and that we dress our behaviour in the frippery of France. If so, we are still in the old cut; and have not so far conformed to the new Parisian mode of good breeding, as [...] to say, to the most humiliated creature that crawls upon the earth, that great public benefits are derived from the murder of his servants, the attempted assassination of himself and of his wife, and the mortification, disgrace, and degradation, that he has personally suffered.

Although some critics complained that the movie was "too talky" and lacked action, * that only heightens the tension. Imagine how difficult it must be to force yourself to carry on as if there weren't a "swinish multitude" out on the prowl looking to make an example of someone like you. For someone raised on crude satires of "Let them eat cake" aristos, ** a movie like this makes an impact similar to that of a story like The Diary of Anne Frank for viewers conditioned to expect beady-eyed Jews sucking the blood of the Folk masses. And I don't remember anyone referring to a movie about Anne Frank as an "arty snoozer." What a clueless schmuck.

In both cases, the caricatures may have started off with a kernel of truth based on particular aristocrats or Jewish bankers, but once the herd runs with it, it spirals out of control. Also in both cases, the slandered group enjoys a higher social station than the swarm of malcontents, so that once the envy and wrath of individuals aggregate and are amplified by the envy and wrath of the rest of the horde, it is only a matter of time before they act to knock their superiors off their pedastal -- not by trying and dispassionately judging individual defendants but by a broad-brush "take no prisoners" assault on the group as a whole.

Moreover, the two groups had to fear both calculated apprehension by an organized military or police, as well as spontaneous bloodshed at the hands of the mob (such as in a pogrom). And in the specific cases of Frank and Elliott, the crowd's xenophobia toward their ethnic group makes their security all the more fragile. (Antipathy toward Marie Antoinette's Austrian background also features in The Lady and the Duke.)

The other title character, the Duke of Orleans, shows how idealistic individuals who encourage a revolution may become consumed by the very group they supported. That could be due to lack of sufficient zeal or to the fact that once the worst offenders are taken care of, frivolous charges must be trumped up in order to keep the nation's purifiers in business. Although Lady Elliott implores the Duke to take a firm stand and vote against the execution of his cousin the King, he responds that he agrees with her reasoning but that he is caught up in the advancing stampede (or some similar metaphor).

I don't read his defense as a self-serving rationalization: it seems that Rohmer wants to say that it really is unlikely that you will be able to stand still once you enter the herd, or swim against the current once you wade too far out into the sea. The only way to uphold your principles, then, is to make a bold existential choice not to enter the stampede in the first place. And of course the larger lesson is that small, tinkering changes and reforms are preferable to wild swings driven mostly by the caprice of the masses. That is because high civilization is an unstable equilibrium for homo sapiens, a state that can easily diverge off into barbarism after even modest perturbations.

Other revolutionaries receive relatively sympathetic treatment, showing that Rohmer is not a knee-jerk royalist either. Elliott harbors a fugitive polemicist and, fearing that a revolutionary patrol might discover him (and punish her as an accomplice), she hides him between the wall and the mattresses of her bed. She remains on her bed, nearly nude, hoping that she will not be asked to get up. Although it appears they may force her from her bed -- to the delight of several leering beasts in the patrol -- the officer in charge tells them to back off, since it would be a violation of etiquette. Elliott thanks him for maintaining propriety, and the fugitive evades capture.

Near the end when Elliott is put on trial, it is clear that the revolutionaries are not a cohesive monolith -- as a cartoon version might portray them -- but a group barely held together, riven by disputes large and small, some just delusionally idealistic and others consumed by hatred for aristocrats. Robespierre himself makes a brief cameo to tell the others not to bother with Elliott, as they have bigger fish to fry. He does not come off as a bloodthirsty, choleric tyrant; he seems more cold, calculating, and charismatic.

Another director could have easily used the occasion of making this movie to either skewer the aristocracy or portray them as angels, according to his ideological tastes. Instead, Rohmer takes a humanizing approach, showing both the foibles of the upper classes and of a few revolutionaries, as well as the savagery of the mob. *** The film ends with several high-ranking figures stepping up to the guillotine, the camera only showing their austere expressions and the dignified attire they're still wearing even as they await death. This approach works best, for as Burke observed, an inordinate focus on the faults of a group of people leaves little room for thinking up cool-headed reforms that would correct these faults (my emphasis):

Your legislators [in France] seem to have taken their opinions of all professions, ranks, and offices, from the declamations and buffooneries of satirists; who would themselves be astonished if they were held to the letter of their own descriptions. By listening only to these, your leaders regard all things only on the side of their vices and faults, and view those vices and faults under every colour of exaggeration. It is undoubtedly true, though it may seem paradoxical; but in general, those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults, are unqualified for the work of reformation: because their minds are not only unfurnished with patterns of the fair and good, but by habit they come to take no delight in the contemplation of those things. By hating vices too much, they come to love men too little. It is therefore not wonderful, that they should be indisposed and unable to serve them.

* Poo-poo-ing a movie as "talky" rarely means there is too much dialogue. "Too talky" means "I wish they wouldn't say that." In the present case, bitchy reviewers just want the super-rich to shut their traps and get guillotined already.

** Marie Antoinette did not actually say this; that she did was propaganda and has survived to the present day.

*** In one scene, Elliott is accosted in her carriage by a ogre carrying the head of the Princess of Lamballe on a pike, presumably only shortly after she had been brutally gang-raped and mutilated.


  1. Since you're into classical music and period pieces, I'd like to recommend "All the Mornings in the World" and "Farinelli". The first one is hauntingly excellent, and second, while flawed, has Bach as a character, who if I remember correctly, you're fond of.

  2. "I can't say how the upper classes are portrayed in mainstream French movies and TV shows, but you only need to look at Law & Order and Titanic to see how vilely caricatured they are in the US."

    It's the same in France, if not even worse. After all we are a socialist country, haha.

  3. once the worst offenders are taken care of, frivolous charges must be trumped up in order to keep the nation's purifiers in business

    Sounds like the perfect description of our current anti-discrimination industry, whether of the anti-racist or the feminist variety.

  4. Sounds interesting, I'll try to check it out. I haven't seen enough Rohmer as I would like to, but I liked what little I have seen.

    Apropos Stillman & 18th century revolutions: Stillman had a project for a movie about the American Revolution which fell through, partly because of the simultaneous release of Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" (which Stillman detested). It would have been interesting to see Stillman's look at American history (I suspect he would have had some Tory sympathies).

  5. Yeah, the other Stillman movie that fell through -- Red Azalea, based on a memoir of Maoist China -- would likely have shared much with Lady and the Duke.

    I wish he'd make a movie about his new life in Paris, kind of a follow-up to Barcelona (which is my favorite of his). I'll write up a full review of Barcelona at some point, but having read the reviews of others, it seems they missed a big part of it --

    Too many read into it an "Old Europe vs New Europe" slant that was likely never intended. Barcelona in the early-mid '80s was like the Bay Area in the late '60s and early '70s. It just seems like Barcelona is more "stuck" in countercultural ways because it started a full 15 years later there.

    In France, they were in step with the rest of the West: the big upheaval was 1968. And look how well they've bounced back, though granted their civilized traditions were stronger than in Spain.

    A movie that included this recent history, even if only as background, would provide a sorely needed corrective to the neo-con hatred of all things French. It would also show that, contra what most good liberals think, it's the traditions and system of manners that's the best about French society, not necessarily their 35-hour work weeks.

  6. Maybe people who complain about movies being too talky are just watching the wrong kind of movie. It's like criticizing Transformers for not having enough dialogue.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."