The French term for sly, witty banter is “marivaudage,” in honor of Marivaux, Gaul’s most famous playwright after Moliere. In Marivaux’s 1724 play “The False Servant,” there’s marivaudage to spare and intrigue so intricate it makes landing on Mars look straightforward. Engagingly performed in an empty theater — though not always on its bare stage — and intelligently filmed by Benoit Jacquot, this is a snappy game of emotional chess perfectly suited to fests and sophisticated venues. The pic, centering on a wealthy maiden who disguises herself as a gentleman to ascertain the true character of a potential suitor, has been attracting small but steady auds since its March 8 release.
The camera reveals the wings of a cozy old theater as actress Sandrine Kiberlain rehearses her opening line and Isabelle Huppert adjusts her period dress. We follow a servant with a lantern down a spiral staircase into the theater where he greets Trivelin (Pierre Arditi) among the vacant seats, thereby launching the play.
The cast is in costume, the only props are a few lanterns, a purse of coins, a letter. Using plenty of close-ups and well-timed cross-cutting, the drama unfolds with black-outs between acts.
The Chevalier (Kiberlain, in trousers and a three-cornered hat) hires down-on-his-luck former gentleman Trivelin to fill in while her customary servant goes to Paris on an errand. Hiding her long hair under her hat, Kiberlain has befriended Lelio (Mathieu Amalric), and the two pals are at the country estate of the Countess (Huppert), Lelio’s fiancee.
Not realizing that the Chevalier is, in fact, a woman, Lelio explains that he needs advice on dumping the Countess. He had intended to marry her and live off her income of “6,000 a year” but he’s recently heard of another marriageable prospect in Paris who’s worth twice as much. The “prospect” is none other than the young woman posing as the Chevalier.
And why is he reluctant to just call it quits and pursue the better deal? Lelio took out a 10,000-coin loan from the Countess and signed a sort of pre-nuptial contract: If either party pulls out, they must pay the other 50,000 smackers.
The buddy-buddy talk gives the Chevalier ample proof that Lelio is a mercenary rat. But she’s enjoying herself, so she agrees to woo the Countess, which will then permit Lelio to wrangle out of his obligations. Or so he thinks.
Meanwhile, Trivelin, who knows the Chevalier is really a woman but doesn’t know exactly who, takes a shine to her and her wealth. Via elaborate and elegantly worded machinations, the Chevalier tricks Lelio into showing his true colors to the Countess.
Both cynical and speedy, the play feels modern in a register not unlike “Dangerous Liaisons.” Scenes between Huppert and Kiberlain are amusing and genuinely moving as the Countess’ feelings for Lelio expire and are expertly recouped by the charming Chevalier.
Via thoughtful but unfussy lensing and editing, the witty, wordy text is allowed to speak for itself. While Arditi and Amalric are good and Alexandre Soulie is energetically entertaining as slightly thick-headed Harlequin, it is the delicate, perfectly controlled interplay between Huppert and Kiberlain that most stands out.