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With: Lucy Russell, Jean-Claude Dreyfus
Written by: Eric Rohmer, based on the memoirs of Grace Elliot
Directed by: Eric Rohmer
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent images
Language: English, French with English subtitles
Running Time: 129
Date: 09/07/2001

The Lady and the Duke (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Costume Smarty

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm torn by the several reactions I had to Eric Rohmer's new film, The Lady and the Duke.

For one thing, Rohmer, at age 82, is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers working today. As a member of the French New Wave, he created some of history's great talking pictures, such as My Night at Maud's (1969), Claire's Knee (1971) and Autumn Tale (1999).

When I call them "talking" pictures, that's a compliment -- Rohmer is a master of contemporary conversation and dialogue between richly drawn characters, mostly young people with modern ideas. He's rarely strayed into the costume genre -- just twice before, in fact, with The Marquise of O (1976) and Perceval (1978), and now once more with The Lady and the Duke.

It's difficult to overcome my natural aversion to what usually passes for costume pictures, as I did recently with Clare Peploe's joyous Triumph of Love. And Rohmer only mostly succeeds here.

Yet I was exhilarated by his cutting-edge technical approach. Working for the first time with digital video, Rohmer commissioned the painter Jean-Baptiste Marot to re-create the exteriors of Revolution-era France. Whenever characters venture from their chambers, they're digitally placed inside Marot's exquisite paintings, still able to move about. It's oddly surreal, but wonderfully, hugely effective.

The story itself has the "lady," Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell, also in Christopher Nolan's Following), an Englishwoman living in France. Based on her journals, the film takes place entirely from her point of view. Her close friend, the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, from The City of Lost Children), is the film's most important secondary character.

Grace is staunchly anti-Revolution (she apparently enjoyed love affairs with a few important and high-ranking aristocrats) and argues at length with the Duke, who ignores his royal bloodline in favor of a slightly passive revolutionary view.

I confess I'm sadly lacking in my knowledge of the French Revolution, and the film does not provide a "French Revolution for Dummies" overview, which is probably for the better. The main events include Grace helping to hide a fugitive against the Duke's wishes, and the Duke casting the deciding vote (offscreen) to kill the king.

Like Manoel de Oliveira's The Letter, the film passes over large gaps of time with intertitles, which helps to internalize the story to a single, limited point of view. Rohmer correctly sees this point of view as the story's strength. After all, how much of a war can a person living through it actually see and understand?

Rohmer has cited D.W. Griffith's silent-era film Orphans of the Storm (1922) as one of the chief inspirations of this film, which further justifies and explains his choices.

A more exciting film might have been made about someone who supported the Revolution (think Braveheart), but Rohmer makes clear the reasons for Grace's preference for the ancien regime when she arrives in Paris to see a mob parading the duchess' head on a stick. To her, this uncouth and violent "new order" clearly cannot be preferable to the old one.

Though I admire The Lady and the Duke very much on an intellectual level, I can't help but remember how beautifully Rohmer's last picture, Autumn Tale, hit me on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. Given a choice between the two, I would easily take the latter.

However, any film by Rohmer deserves to be celebrated, and I can't dismiss this one simply because it dares to be difficult.

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