“Marquise” is a sprightly costumer based on the fetching dancer-cum-thesp who dazzled Moliere, Racine and the Sun King himself before making a suitably theatrical exit in 1668 at age 35. Toplined by Sophie Marceau, the unpretentious dramedy manages to make viewers feel sophisticated and involved without requiring an advanced degree in French history. An attractive cast, bawdy subtext, lavish production design and peppy score are among the pleasures in Vera Belmont’s energetically helmed pic, which should click nicely locally and offshore.
Not unlike Patrice Leconte’s “Ridicule,” with its early glimpse of a nobleman urinating on an enemy, “Marquise” gets under way with four actresses in urgent search of a latrine. The scene is set for bodily functions to co-exist with higher pursuits, as the bladder-emptying damsels are with Moliere’s itinerant theatrical troupe.
During the pit stop, Moliere (Bernard Giraudeau in a lively, muscular perf) and best friend/fellow actor Gros-Rene (Patrick Timsit) witness Marquise (Marceau) dancing for a scruffy crowd. Her movements — which a sudden downpour and a spate of slow motion can’t repress — are the prelude to servicing paying customers, whose coins are pocketed by Marquise’s dad.
Gros-Rene immediately is smitten and, while an elderly gent has his way with her, the roly-poly comic proposes, promising his bride-to-be she’ll have her chance to act onstage in Paris. She accepts.
Although the brazen, self-assured beauty and the balding portly ham appear to be an odd couple, their relationship thrives on his bottomless adoration and her reciprocal affection. Showbiz, then as now, is a morally fluid and fiercely loyal realm. Marquise sleeps around — mostly with guys whose names still will resonate three centuries hence — yet cherishes her husband.
Next to be smitten is budding playwright Racine (a dashing Lambert Wilson), who gives her private coaching in the 17th-century Method. When Louis XIV (Thierry Lhermitte) is persuaded to ban Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” Racine and Marquise get their respective breaks.
Before long, Marquise triumphs in “Andromaque.” The tragedy, written to order for his beloved in 1667, assured Racine’s reputation but took its toll on Marquise. Pic’s conclusion borrows from “All About Eve,” “Hamlet” and history with a firm but far from overbearing hand.
In her fourth outing behind the camera, Belmont, who has produced nearly 30 films in as many years, including “Quest for Fire” and “Farinelli,” makes the era spring to life. Pic’s first half is crammed full of incident and detail as if to say, “See — these really were interesting times,” and auds readily will agree. Frivolity gradually gives way to deeper themes — artistic and romantic rivalry, remaining in favor at court, knowing when to be witty, when to be wily and when to weep. Dialogue features some risque banter and finely tuned insults but remains grounded and accessible.
Robust and spirited without showing off, Marceau has all the creamy-breasted allure and most of the grace required to turn heads and accrue glory. As her husband, Timsit is ardent and touching. And in a far from obvious casting choice, Lhermitte scores as the King.
Shot and edited with alacrity, pic conveys the mud, muck and rabble as well as the sumptuous pomp of the day. Jordi Savall’s score is a delight. As costumers based on real-life characters go, this effort is not as breathlessly informative as “Beaumarchais,” as inherently poignant as “Farinelli” or as artistically ambitious as “Tous les matins du monde.” It’s simply entertaining without being taxing.