Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Lady and the Duke: DVD Review

The Lady and the Duke (2001) tells the story of Grace Elliot, a wealthy Scotswoman who made France her second home during the 18th century and was subsequently caught up in the events of the French revolution.

Fans of sweeping historic epics will find a lot to admire here, but the film has its share of disappointments, too.

Movie-goers--who are used to (and enjoy) more convincing and literal special effects--will probably find Rohmer's use of painted sets distracting. I was torn: they have an appropriate, old-fashioned grandeur--like huge painted backdrops for an opera--but the characters also seem to pop out of them and stumble around in them in a cartoon-like, unintentionally humorous way. Maybe they looked better on the big screen.

The film also has trouble finding a balance between drawing room drama (director Eric Rohmer's usual territory) and epic, historic spectacle. Some of the most dramatic moments are brushed over and less interesting ones are dwelt on. I wasn't that interested in the character of "the Duke," Grace's former lover who pops into the story a little too often in order to drink port and talk portentiously and at length about the latest events in the revolution.

And I especially liked the sub-plot in which Grace hides a nobleman, a former rival, from patrols to save him from the guillotine. It's a great, tense dramatization of former allegiances and sympathies thrown into the air by huge cataclysmic events: the story even hinted at the possibility of a budding passion between them. It was a disappontment then, that one of the most compelling threads of the story for me was resolved by a snippet of text title flashed on screen: "He later made it to England safely."

The film was roundly criticized in France for being reactionary and conservative, even royalist, in its sympathies. This is unlikely to bother an American audience which has less at stake in sympathizing, for the purposes of a film, with the French aristocracy. Still, one may begin to wonder... Why did he have to make the aristocracy and their cake so attractive and the revolting peasants so...revolting?

All in all, a good, but less than masterful, historic epic from a master of the modern drawing room.

FilmStocker Rating: B-


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