History comes alive with verve and cold-sweat suspense in “The Lady and the Duke,” a true story drawn from the memoirs of the titular lady, an Englishwoman in Paris who remained a loyal supporter of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution and the politically dicey Reign of Terror.
Meticulous saga of Grace Elliott’s hands-on efforts to save a political outcast is a tale of good manners, social conventions and raw ingenuity carried to their peaks under harrowing circumstances. Lensed in digital Beta video under the rigorous baton of 81-year-old Eric Rohmer, costumer has a here-and-now immediacy enhanced by computer-assisted visuals that bring the vistas of Paris circa 1790-93 back to life with the delicacy of period etchings. Visually arresting and narratively tight account of friendship’s solid-if-perilous bonds in the wake of a former romance preemed in Venice on Friday, in conjunction with the presentation of a Gold Lion for career achievement honoring the senior-most of the New Wave’s still-roaring old lions.
With a stunning perf from relative newcomer Lucy Russell — who carries every scene on her creamy shoulders and instantly joins the ranks of memorable movie heroines — pic should be promotable as a distaff adventure as well as an ambitious change of pace for Rohmer. Downright odd but emotionally vivid pic requires and rewards viewer concentration. Film bowed last week in Gaul; Sony Pictures Classics will release it in the U.S.
Having remained excellent friends after their affair, former lovers Grace and Philippe, the Duke d’Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), find their relationship tested when the duke — a cousin to Louis XVI — must decide whether to support his relative or decry the monarchy. A sincere fan of the king — a risky stance in an era whose decor tended toward aristocrats’ heads on pikes — 30-year-old Grace should have returned to the safety of England at pic’s outset. But, having embraced life in France, she sets about riding out the Revolution with the can-do gumption of an independently wealthy and resourceful Mary Poppins abroad. Grace is not flighty or eccentric; she is simply firm in her Royalist opinions and loyal in friendship.
When asked to return from the relative safety of her suburban estate in Meudon, just outside Paris, to help smuggle out an unnamed man in need, Grace accepts. Having given her word, she sets about the incredibly dangerous task, even though her friend the duke despises the man in question, the Marquis de Champcenetz, governor of the Tuileries, and Grace doesn’t much care for him herself.
Pic evokes an atmosphere in which one false move — or even one true one — can lead to one’s head in a basket. Scene in which Grace hides the fugitive between her mattress and bedspring, tucks herself in and then employs reverse psychology to discourage a regiment from searching her bed is nerve-wrackingly suspenseful. The ingredients are simple, the tension sublime.
Grace speaks perfect French, but pretends to speak less well when it suits her, such as when she wants in to Paris when everybody else wants out. She’s witty and resourceful, but shaken by the carnage in the streets.
Pic’s odd, consistently involving tone arises from the contrast between indoor interactions, shot in tight chamber-drama style, and exterior sequences in which thesps and extras have been digitally inserted into land- and cityscapes painted for the film.
In his mission to reflect Revolution-era Paris and its near-suburbs as they looked to his real-life protagonists, Rohmer commissioned painter Jean-Baptiste Marot to create 37 canvases — based on paintings, illustrations and maps of the day — against which actors could be digitally incorporated with proper scale and perspective.
The singular artificiality of some 20 minutes of love-it-or-hate-it digital compositing — the actors seem to be strolling through etchings, the Seine flowing under corpse-strewn bridges — is simultaneously state-of-the-art and charmingly naive. The vistas of Paris and Meudon during the Terror are in turn desolate and crowded, familiar and foreign, lovely and sinister.
A significant portion of the film’s pleasures stem from the exquisite spoken language. This is the French of courtliness and expediency, of master-to-servant orders and citizen-to-aristocrat intrigue. In fact, the correct manipulation of language is the major weapon people have in the struggle to further their aims and save their skins. It’s rich and heady stuff, marbled with tenses that increase the narrative tension. (Just how conditional was that conditional statement?)
Russell — previously seen in “Following,” the terrific debut from Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) — is simply wonderful. She makes of Lady Elliott a full-bodied character who’s easy to root for and impossible to second-guess. Dreyfus, best known for comic roles, is well cast as the robust and conflicted duke whose vote may seal his cousin’s fate. Supporting thesps and rabble convince across the board.
Viewers beyond Gaul will most likely take pic as a good adventure tale, but even this long after the fact, Grace Elliott’s Royalist views are raising a few eyebrows in France.
Current pic is Rohmer’s only political film along with 1993’s “The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque” (about the vicissitudes of civic and cultural spending).
Budget was $5.3 million — none of it provided by the French government’s cash advance program where, according to the pic’s producer, the selectors couldn’t see the point of such a project, particularly in the hands of Rohmer and his customary crew, who had next to no experience with digital technology. As did vet helmer Agnes Varda with last year’s sublimely entertaining DV docu “The Gleaners and I,” oldster Rohmer proves that having something to say and knowing how to say it trump mere technological innovations every time.