PRINT May 2002


Noblesse Obliged: Geoffrey O’Brien on Eric Rohmer

THAT ERIC ROHMER, NOW EIGHTY-TWO, should embark on a technically innovative film set during the French Revolution underscores the quiet experimentalism of his filmmaking, an experimentalism sometimes indistinguishable from a return to the earliest cinematic sources. Anyone might have adapted the 1801 memoirs of British aristocrat Grace Dalrymple Elliott, with their account of her troubled friendship with her former lover the duke of Orléans—she a fervent monarchist, he a radicalized aristocrat—and the dangers she experienced during the Revolution; the story, with its succession of escapes and deceptions, trials and imprisonments, does not lack intrinsic excitement. The result in most cases would have been predictable: the sort of subtly modernized emotional drama that indulges the touristic delights of ancient luxuries while carefully flattering contemporary ideas about psychology and political motivation. Rohmer has instead chosen fidelity to his text, relying on Elliott for as much of the dialogue as possible, and a filmic approach that overtly emulates the static setups of D.W. Griffith’s own French-revolutionary epic of 1921, Orphans of the Storm.

L’Anglaise et le Duc—or The Lady and the Duke, as it will be called when it opens this month in the U.S.—stirred up considerable resentment among some French critics troubled at its apparent sympathy for monarchism and its depiction of the French Revolution almost exclusively in terms of uncontrolled mob violence and petty tyranny exercised by Jacobin apparatchiks. (Anglophone spectators reared on A Tale of Two Cities will probably find little to surprise them in such a characterization.) Yet it would be a pity to see The Lady and the Duke primarily as a history film, or as part of a debate on political ideas (ideas that Rohmer, perhaps with a degree of irony, is happy to attribute solely to Grace Elliott—though he did remark to the Parisian daily Libération that “I do think [she] was mostly right about the Revolution: It was the end of a world, of a refined civilization”). Deeply interested in historical reconstruction, Rohmer nonetheless rejects the “pseudo-fidelity” of documentary-style restagings of events. He has chosen—and not for reasons of economy—to use painted backdrops and digital techniques for the exterior sequences, most of them depicting scenes of massacre, flight, revolutionary mobilization. These scenes, more true than real, are both beautiful and terrifying: The most horrible events seem to take place in the perspective of a child’s theater or stereoscopic toy. Far from aestheticizing violence, these exterior episodes have the impact of events that one doesn’t dare to look at too closely but cannot purge from memory; if the movement of bodies and the depth of space seem slightly unreal, they embody all the more effectively the wooziness of public trauma. A sense of repose is absent because in every case the point for the characters is to pass through, hide, get away.

The interiors, which predominate, are by contrast filmed on a single studio set varied by backdrops and sliding walls to do service as eight different locations. The use of a single set isn’t especially noticeable, but it does mean that Rohmer is not going to spend a lot of time moving the camera to show off the furniture and the architecture. The spaces are just spaces, and in this film that means they are essentially refuges. Danger is outside—seen through a telescope from a balcony or heard as distant shouts and howls—until it intrudes in the form of a midnight visit from the local constabulary. Most of the time people simply wait: for the militiamen to be satisfied and leave, for a chance to slip a fugitive over a wall. A scene in which Grace and her friends await the results of the crucial vote on the king’s execution could almost pass for a fairly pleasant dinner party on election night; that disparity between polite surface and imminent violence acutely conveys the condition of people trying very hard not to surrender to their own anxiety.

“Perhaps this is how it happens,” Rohmer has remarked, “when History overturns the lives of individuals.” The Lady and the Duke rejoins Rohmer’s more familiar romantic comedies by presenting a series of intimate conversations between a couple who cannot quite find a point of agreement. Here the question is not whether they will be lovers but whether, having been lovers and friends, they can continue to be allies. With inspired casting Rohmer has pitted Jean-Claude Dreyfus, a traditional actor in the grand French manner—all gestures and winks and elaborate articulation—as the duke, against a relatively inexperienced English actress, Lucy Russell, whose performance is little short of sublime. Russell’s very body language and accent—from the moment she utters the phrase “Je suis une étrangère”—distinguish her from the rest of the cast. She is, preeminently, an Englishwoman, an outsider refusing to become part of the appalling spectacle around her: the element that won’t blend, a figure of pure defiance whose political convictions are ultimately less interesting than her refusal to modify her tone in order to placate either friends or enemies. Between them Dreyfus and Russell achieve the tone of comedy in the midst of deepening catastrophe, and without in any way mitigating that catastrophe. For its surfaces and its inner equilibrium alike, The Lady and the Duke may be the most beautiful of Rohmer’s films.

Geoffrey O’Brien is editor in chief of the Library of America. His latest book, Castaways of the Image Planet: Movies, Show Business, Public Spectacle, is forthcoming in June from Counterpoint Press.