18th-century tale to be told using superimposed scenes

HOLLYWOOD — When Sony Pictures Classics releases “The Lady and the Duke” Stateside in the spring, the unconventional historical treatment may come as a surprise to Eric Rohmer’s small but faithful U.S. audience.

The French director’s latest film is a departure from the contemporary tales of romantic interplay most associated with the auteur, whose last release, “An Autumn’s Tale” — a modern-day meditation on grown-up relationships set in the Rhone Valley — was the third-highest-grossing French film of 1999 ($2.1 million).

“The Lady and the Duke,” on the other hand, is set in 18th-century Paris against the backdrop of the French Revolution. But it’s no staid period piece: It’s filmed with cutting-edge digital effects via which the actors are superimposed against large, detailed paintings — the first movie ever to utilize such an effect.

“Everything is filmed from the front,” explains Francoise Etchegaray, producer of “Lady and the Duke,” who has worked with Rohmer for 18 years. “We chose to film in beta digital because it was more like painting. There’s less poetry with high-definition video.”

“He’s always been ahead of the curve as far as being first at new trends in films,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker, whose company has released many of Rohmer’s films over the past two decades. “Here is a filmmaker who has not only held his own in digital video, but used new special effects and somehow retained his personality.”

It’s been 32 years since Rohmer’s “My Night at Maud’s” charmed audiences worldwide with its typically Gallic sexual repartee. The now-octogenarian director was already nearly 50 years old when he finally broke through as a major New Wave director after years as a journalist and TV director.

At 81, he prefers to live out of the spotlight and almost never does interviews, or accepts invitations to festivals or retrospectives. It was producer and friend Pierre Rissient who persuaded him to travel to the Venice Intl. Film Festival to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award and unspool his new film.

“I had a debt to the Venice film festival, which has awarded prizes three times to my films, ‘A Good Marriage,’ ‘The Green Ray’ and ‘Autumn Tale,’” Rohmer said in a statement to the fest. “I made the decision long ago not to attend any festival, but it would have been discourteous of me to not attend once again, given that Venice is bestowing an award upon me for my entire body of work.”

Rohmer based the story of “Lady and the Duke” on “The Journal of My Life During the French Revolution,” a memoir by Grace Elliot, a young Scottish woman who was friend and mistress to the Duke of Orleans. Searching for the right actress to portray Elliot, Rohmer put out a notice to a London casting agency, which sent dozens of tapes. He found his thesp in Lucy Russell, a virtually unknown actress who impressed Rohmer with her knowledge of the memoirs. Veteran French actor Jean-Claude Dreyfus (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Delicatessen,” “City of Lost Children”) plays the duke.

In a recent interview in Cahiers du Cinema –which Rohmer edited at a seminal time when fellow filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette were also associated with the magazine — he says the film’s look was influenced by several lesser-known French painters.

Before shooting, he also watched historical films, including “The Orphans of the Storm” by D.W. Griffith, Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” and Jean Renoir’s “La Marseillaise.”

Rohmer’s earlier period films were conventionally shot — “Perceval le Gallois” (1978) in a studio, and “The Marquise of O” (1976) using historically accurate locations. Paintings were clearly a major influence for these films: In “The Marquise of O,” shot by Nestor Almendros, an actress reclining in a draped satin dress recalls Manet’s “Odalisque.”

Since very few Paris neighborhoods have an 18th-century look, Rohmer was determined that “Lady and the Duke” look historically accurate. Thus exteriors were filmed in front of 37 backgrounds created by artist Jean-Baptiste Marot created from period street maps and engravings. Reinforcing the vintage feel, silent film-style intertitles are used between scenes.

“It’s amazing, he’s an artist at the peak of his form, he’s undaunted by new things,” says Barker. “(With ‘Lady and the Duke’), you feel like you have leaped into the canvas.”

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