Seeing a film by the great Eric Rohmer was once notoriously likened to "watching paint dry"; in the haunting The Lady and the Duke, it's as if paint has come to life. To re-create France in the 1790s, Rohmer staged his ... more »intimate scenes against blue screens where his digital footage would be blended with backgrounds from Romantic paintings and eerily pure perspective drawings of 18th-century streets, rooflines, and landscapes. This cost-effective technique pays rich dividends, creating a Masterpiece Theatre-type world of such quaintness, it seems impervious to the bloody Reign of Terror crowding in ever more insistently from just offscreen. That's a rough analogue for the precariously privileged existence of our sympathetic main characters: Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), a Scotswoman relocated to France, and Philippe, duc d'Orléans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), her close friend and former lover, who's also King Louis XVI's cousin. As in so many Rohmer works, much of the film consists of conversations marking milestones in this pair's now-platonic, yet still intellectually passionate, relationship. But this time the issues truly are life-and-death. --Richard T. Jameson« less
"Grace Elliott was a remarkable Scotswoman who boasted among her lover the future British King George IV, and Phillippe, Duke of Orleans, radical cousin to the ill-fated Louis XVI. This film is based on her journal, and recounts, from a royalist viewpoint, the fallout from the 1789 Revolution in a France she had adopted as her home country. With Republican-sanctioned massacres and riots in the streets, the Royal Family in prison with calls for their blood, Elliott attempts to retain the civilised privileges of a political salon, while agonising over whether to escape to her country estate. Having fled an increasingly dangerous Paris on foot, she is called back to smuggle out the Republic's No. 1 enemy, Champcenetz, former jailer in the Bastille. As the barbaric zeal of Robespierre and the Convention reaches bloody excess, even arisotcratic sympathisers, such as her old friend the Duke, are considered suspect.The novelty of the story is its insider's view of familiar events from an outsider - a woman, a Briton, a Royalist, a non-aristocrat. Rohmer remains completely faithful to Elliott's world-view - she is a somewhat self-idealising, brave, loyal, non-sexual woman; the proletarian mob are uncouth, sexually voracious, violent, bloodthirsty; manners can be just as important as morality. This limited point of view is perhaps reflected in the artifical, theatrical mise-en-scene, shot in DV: period detail is limited to costumes and interiors; exteriors are giant, computerised sets, through which characters and extras walk as if in a painting.But if this viewpoint is limited, it also creates an uncommon vividness and empathy with the lead character. Historical dramas are usually drawn in broad strokes, with characters reduced to textbook caricatures. Here we share the character's every exigency in detail, from the sores on her feet after a rural escape, or the fatigue of waiting in a crowded prison with only one stool. 'The Lady And The Duke' may be the first Eric Rohmer thriller, with at least two long sequences of nail-chomping tension, the aforementioned bedroom concealment in the face of a squad of bruatal soldiers, and Grace's trial for conspiracy. This tension is achieved by completely ignoring the thriller rules set down by Hollywood - no music, no rapid editing, no restless camera, just character empathy (aided by Lucy Russell's terrific performance - the scene where the excecuted head of an old friend is prodded through her carriage window is traumatising) and the compelling inevitability of history.We are mistaken if we think Rohmer will be content with a single viewpoint. Slowly it dawns on the viewer that the Catholic director is putting Elliott through a moral Passion, in which, through her actions, her bravery, her loyalty, her trial and public humiliation, her risking death, she tries to repent for the sexual 'sins' of her past. You can make of this what you will - it won't spoil your enjoyment of film that shouldn't work - like most Rohmer films, it is full of stagy, stilted, formal dialogues - but, again like most Rohmer films, which brilliantly does."
A Bit of Background Helps
Bruce Kendall | Southern Pines, NC | 03/02/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After viewing this film, my initial impression was that Rhomer & Company failed to quite hit the mark. Rhomer and CGI effects just seemed like too incongruous a combo and the acting, particularly from Lucy Russell, appeared to be wooden and contrived to a great extent. The little figures of actors moving around in front of the CGI sets indeed do like choppily handled puppets. If I was to have written a review after just seeing the DVD, I would have assigned it 3 or, at most, five stars.
Then I thought about Hippolyte Taine. He is a largely forgotten early 20th C historian who wrote a huge chronicle on French History, with a large section devoted to the French Revolution and its causes. The more I compared my mental notes of Taine's depiction of Ancienne Regime France with Rhomer's vision, the more sense the movie made to me. In fact, I now consider The Lady and the Duke (the title sounds silly in English, like a movie about Audrey Hepburn and John Wayne) a work of genius. All my initial objections were no doubt the result of misinterpreting Rhomer's intent.
Yes, the actors, and Mme Elliot (Russell), in particular, appear stilted and overly formal in many scenes. Yet this is precisely the way the aristocracy behaved in that era. It is one of the factors that Taine points out as leading to their downfall. Mannerism and ritual had become a way of life and further alienated them from "the common people." Every word, every movement of every waking hour spent in society was predicated on a strict code of conduct that descended directly from the King and Queen down to the Court, and then onto the rest of the aristocracy. To veer from any of these set standards was to invite ostracism from the caste. Whenever the duke calls upon his former lover, the Scottish born, but Royally connected Mme Elliot, these rituals are carefully maintained. Rhomer does an excellent job of balancing the banal, formal dance these characters must charade through, with the genuine human emotion simmering beneath the surface. The tragedy of the situation is that, like the little figures lurching in front of the painted backdrops of 18th C Paris, these two are puppets as well. He, the Duc D'Orleans (Dreyfus), though cousin to the King, is trying his best to keep in step with the new generation of revolutionaries. She (Mme Elliot) is a Royalist to the core. They are victims of political machinations and of fate. Both are playing with fire, and in the end, both are fatally burned by it.
I wouldn't say it's absolutely necessary to read a history of the French Revolution, in order to enjoy this film, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have some background in order to see where Rhomer is going here. It's a very insightful look into an era that was properly described as "The Reign of Terror." Also keep an ear open for some rather playful literary references tossed in here and there, as in when the Duc refers derisively to Laclos (author of "Dangerous Liasons," which in some ways mirrors the affair between the two lead characters). This is a very artful, in many ways subtle film and I can, after grappling with it for a bit, recommend it highly.
Friendship between Man and Woman during Feench Revolution
Tsuyoshi | Kyoto, Japan | 02/17/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Eric Rohmer, born in 1920, has still energy to challenge us with his new vision; "The Lady and the Duke" will remain in your memory mainly as new definition of "moving picture." After the opening credits of still paintings (made for the film by the painter Jean-Baptiste Marot), showing the city of Paris in 1790s, you watch something you have never seen -- the people on the campus start to move.Actually, it's a little trick of CGIs, using real-life actors and props against the painted backdrops, but the unique touch of the film is quite undeniable. But the film's greatest virtue is not that only; Eric Rohmer, known for part of French New Wave Movement and his penchant for (some say, too) many dialogues and (too minutely) detailed everyday romance of ordinary people, is still the same Rohmer in this beautiful period movie. "The Lady and the Duke" is essentially about the love that once was between Lady, Scotswoman Grace Elliott, and Duke, Louis Phillip duc d'Orleans Joseph, cousin of ill-fated King Louis the Sixteenth.Remember before you see the film that Grace and Duke once loved each other, but now their relation is, as far as the love is concerned, over. Duke found a new love in another lady, but still they care each other during the stormy times of French Revolution. As the film unfolds, you soon realize that Duke wants Lady to leave for safe England while she is worried about the fate of Duke, who she thinks is manipulated by other revolutionalists. There is an undercurrent exchange of tenderness between them, and that part is what you should not miss in this film. As other reviewers say, "The Lady and the Duke" is based on the memoirs written by Grace Elliott, "Journal of my Life during the French Revolution" published in 1859 in England, which is soon translated in France in 1861. The film traces the events recorded by Grace Elliott very faithfully -- therefore, the way one officier throws away his jacket into fire, indignant hearing the result of the vote; or the way Lady desperately conceals former jail manager Champcenetz, who escaped from the bloodthirsty mob, is all recorded in the original journal in the same way. This is revealing in understanding the director's intention because Rohmer treats his films as if they are novels (hence, talky nature of his films), and in this case, he is only faithful to this vivid memoir which he finds very fascinating. (When they re-issued the French version, Rohmer himself wrote a preface for that occasion.) The only important departure from the book is that the director cut the latter part of the memoir, in which Grace tells of her plights during her long imprisonment. Rohmer makes slight changes here and there -- for example, Grace is forced to see in her carriage the severed head of one Duchess in the film, but the memoir tells she only saw it on the street; Lady does record she was certainly once forced to see one head by the angry citizens as the film depictes, but the head belonged to another person -- but otherwise Rohmer is surprisingly faithful to what Lady wrote, showing how he was impressed by this independent, spirited woman's account.A few more facts. Lucy Russel, formerly seen in femme fatale role in Christopher "Memento" Nolan's debut film "Following," is perfect as strong-willed Grace Elliott. (And she did her homework surely, when she actually read this hard-to-find book in her college before audition! ) Equally memorable is Duke's Jean-Claude Dreyfus, whose previous roles tend to be smaller, but impressive ones (see him in quirky film "Delicatessen".) They succeed in showing, not too excessively, that they still like their former love, even though they know they left the sweet memories far behind.And trivia: you will see many familiar faces you might remember in Rohmer's previous films. You see Alain Libolt as Duc de Biron, and Marie Riviere as Madame Laurent, both in "Conte d'automne." Also you see Charlotte Very as Pulcherie the cook, and Rosette as Franchette (the maid in Duke's estate), both in "Conte d'hiver." Bonus for Rohmer fans."
A Classic Woman in an Uncertain Time
Doug Anderson | Miami Beach, Florida United States | 12/01/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The diaries of Lady Grace Eliot provide the source material for this psychologically rich study of loyalty in Revolutionary France. Lady Grace Eliot is a closet Royalist and her best friend the Duke of Orleans is a leftist; that friendship is tested by the events of the Revolution, nonethelss the two remain loyal to each other despite their political differences. This friendship provides an example of how basic human values like decency should take precedence over abstract political ideals. The Duke is not an extremist. He is a man who believes the King has betrayed the people and he wants to effect changes in France so that the people are better served by a more just government but along the way the Duke gets swept up in events that he no longer has any control over and instead of leading he finds himself being led by an ever more extreme faction of revolutionaries. As the revolution spins out of his control he finds himself in a position of having to vote with the masses and against his conscience just to keep himself above reproach from his fellow revolutionaries. The deciding moment for him comes when he must cast his vote as to what the Kings fate will be. Being a dedicated Royalist Grace Eliot is disgusted by the Dukes actions and yet she never allows herself to become blind with rage. She maintains a sense of proportion and propriety that everyone else lacks. The paintings which provide the backdrops are like Grace Eliot herself, they are classical and balanced. Despite the fact that a mob rules France and that the mob listens only to inhuman extremists like Marat and Robespierre, Grace Eliot continues to hold her head high. She makes her decisions based on principles not on passions and she never comprises her principles. She is loyal to those that she knows and she knows the Royals. But she also knows the Duke. Even though he is forced to do something that she finds utterly loathesome she also understands what made him do it and she forgives him -- showing him a mercy that is all too rare in these perilous times. Grace Eliot has no obscure political objectives, she belives only in decency. She shows what she is made of several times throughout the film. In one very memorable scene (perhaps the most memorable of the film) she hides a wounded Royalist who she does not even like in her bed to save his life while soldiers search her house. If they find him it will mean certain death for the both of them. When the soldiers have left she examines her motives out loud and she is as fascinated by her actions as we are. Grace Eliot sees the revoltion close-up and from far away as she keeps a house in Paris and one in the countryside where she can glimpse Paris through a telescope. It is this geographic distance as well as her English origin which allows her to see what is happening without being swept away by the events. And it is this lucidity and grace under pressure which Rohmer celebrates."
Revolution Come to Life
R. Crane | Washington, DC United States | 11/29/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is a superb movie that grips from the beginning. Based on fact, it deals with revolutionary France so that the viewer feels, "You are there". The clever ruses used then to get around guards, laws, inspections etc. are fascinating. Highly recommended for those interested in this era."