At 81, veteran French auteur Eric Rohmer proves he can still make a film capable of enraging some of his countrymen. His crime is to have a made a period drama which dares to approach the French Revolution from the perspective of the aristocracy, turning the idea about how this bloody period should be portrayed on its head.
Adapted from the memoirs of real-life Scottish aristocrat Grace Elliott, the film offers a morally complex and ambiguous view of this defining moment in French history. Elliott is played with intelligence, passion, and subtlety by Lucy Russell, whose only previous film was as a supporting player in Christopher Nolan's debut feature, "Following".
Throughout the Revolution, Elliott decides to stay in Paris, sticking stubbornly to her monarchist principles, despite living in the shadow of the guillotine. She also remains friends with her former lover, the Duke of Orleans (Dreyfus), who in spite of his royal blood, has turned Republican.
Their urbane discussions shed light on the machinations that drove the Revolution, and contrast starkly with the violence on the streets. Controversially, Rohmer portrays the revolutionaries as a lecherous, drunken mob, their brutality constantly threatening to destroy Elliott and her world.
This world is brought beautifully to life by Rohmer, whose masterstroke is to evoke 18th century Paris in the style of paintings from the period - the actors were shot on blue screen with the paintings dropped in afterwards. They look as if they are in a pop-up book, and the effect is strangely artificial and hyper-real. As the mob violently bursts through these elegant compositions, you get the sense of an old order coming to an end.
"The Lady and the Duke" is intelligent talky fare, beautifully acted, and visualised. Worth a look for a different take on a familiar subject.
In French with English subtitles.