Assured prologue, in which an exiled noble graphically empties his bladder on the now-incapacitated man who once mocked him, couldn’t be a better introduction to life at the court of Louis XVI, circa 1780. The ever-fluid pecking order is determined by the quality and rapidity of one’s rejoinders, and a man can be driven to suicide by the one thing that must be avoided at all costs:
being the object of ridicule.
Compassionate, upright engineer Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) is baron of
an estate where the peasants are dropping (literally) like flies, felled by diseases that breed in the fetid waters where they fish. Broke, but determined to drain the murderous swamps, Gregoire sets out from the provinces to plead his case at Versailles.
TX: TX:A Polygram Film Distribution release (in France) of an Epithete/Cinea/France 3 Cinema production, with participation of CNC, Canal Plus , Investimage 4, Procirep, Gras Savoye. (International sales: Polygram, Paris.) Produced by Gilles Legrand, Frederic Brillion, Philippe Carcassonne. TX:Directed by Patrice Leconte. Screenplay, Remi Waterhouse, Michel Fessler, Eric Vicaut. Gregoire, who is sharp but completely unschooled in the insular protocol of face powder, false modesty and biting remarks, is befriended by a near-penniless physician, the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort). Bellegarde knows the ins and outs of establishing favor at Versailles — and is haunted by every swift rejoinder he ever failed to make — but also maintains a more down-to-Earth home life with his daughter, Mathilde (Judith Godreche), a bright lass on the brink of loveless union with a titled codger to have the means to continue her bold research into diving helmets.
Although the congenitally kind Gregoire prefers not to jest at the expense of others, it so happens that he can more than hold his own when it comes to firing off scathing witticisms.
Now all he has to do is steer clear of humiliation as he works his way up to an audience with the king while sorting out his carnal attraction to powerful Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant) vs. his love for Mathilde. There’s also De Blayac’s lover, L’Abbe de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau), a libertine man of the cloth who pontificates his way into a terrifyingly tight spot.
Thesps are terrific. Nasty characters abound in the pithy script by Remi Waterhouse, Michel Fessler and Eric Vicaut, but they are never less than human and well observed. Ardant is delectable as an imposing woman whose blend of pure strategy and feminine wiles is lethal. Giraudeau bravely limns the insecurities and show-stopping faux pas of a social-climbing phony. The characters of Rochefort and Godreche form a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing cruelty.
Stage-trained Berling (Emmanuelle Beart’s shiftless husband in “Nelly & Mr. Arnaud”) fits the bill as the Candide-like interloper who is both attracted to and repelled by the heady, elitist atmosphere at court.
Costumes and hairdos evoke the era without calling undo attention to themselves: Wigs, for example, match the actors’ hair color instead of being a more authentic, but jarring, white. New Wave vet Antoine Duhamel’s regal, exhilarating score uses period instrumentation to excellent effect. With lighting assignments as diverse as “La Femme Nikita” and “The Horseman on the Roof” to his credit, d.p. Thierry Arbogast helps create a fluid range of moods here.
Those who have followed Leconte’s two-decade career as a helmer of contempo fare — from his mid-’70s comedies to the more intimate “Monsieur Hire” and “The Hairdresser’s Husband,” with a raucous detour to the recent “The Grand Dukes”– should applaud his lilting touch with a bygone century. “Ridicule” helps clarify once again why the French Revolution was necessary.