Looking remarkably fresh and buoyant at almost 300 years of age, 18th-century French playwright Pierre Marivaux’s “The Triumph of Love” gets a simple, elegant overhaul from director Clare Peploe and her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci, here undertaking producer’s chores for the first time in 20 years. Piloted by a spry and seductive star turn from Mira Sorvino and sterling support from Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw, this light, thoroughly entertaining comedy depicts a resourceful woman driven by honest, noble goals, who employs the dishonest tactics of deception and disguise to achieve them. Unfashionable as this type of period piece is in the current market, the verve of the writing and vitality of its themes should provide a good degree of upscale arthouse leverage.
Scripting with Bertolucci and U.S. writer Marilyn Goldin from Martin Crimp’s English translation of the play — first performed in Paris in 1732 — Peploe refuses to shy away from the innate theatricality of the piece, instead fully embracing its light-operatic artifice, right down to a sung curtain call and the occasional appearance of a modern-day audience before the players.
Nor has the director contemporized the action or her approach to it in all but a handful of minor ways. But the comedy has much to recommend it to intelligent contemporary audiences, not least of all its playful handling of gender and empowerment issues, but perhaps even more so its delightful portrait of a woman not just as a vessel for sentiment but a vehicle for justice, deliverance and even redemption: an astute schemer, strategist and conspirer, but one with compassion, conscience and a noble heart.
Central character is an unnamed princess (Sorvino) who occupies a throne usurped years earlier by her father from its rightful owner. That man’s son, Prince Agis (Jay Rodan), was born in prison and smuggled out to be raised in strict seclusion by rationalist philosopher Hermocrates (Kingsley) and his scientist sister, Leontine (Shaw), whose emotionally austere lives are devoted to intellectual and spiritual nourishment, unsullied by the frivolity of love. Having glimpsed Agis in all his naked splendor emerging from a stream, the princess falls hopelessly in love, making it her mission to secure him as a husband and see justice done by restoring him to his throne.
Diving straight into the heart of the action, the camera spies on the princess and her lady-in-waiting (Rachael Stirling) as they hurriedly undress and change into men’s clothing and wigs during a carriage ride through the woods. Given that women, aside from spinsterish Leontine, are frowned upon in Hermocrate’s domain, the pair pass themselves off as traveling philosopher Phocion and his valet to gain access. But the necessity of preventing Agis’ discovery makes his protectors wary, forcing the princess to use all her powers of persuasion, flattery and seduction in a game of triple deception.
Her first and easiest target is Agis, so starved for friendship that he forges an instant bond with the stranger. Next up is Leontine, whose resistance dissolves at the first declaration of love from erudite Phocion. Hermocrates presents more of a challenge, unmasking the guest immediately as a woman and forcing her to invent another alter ego, Aspasie. Claiming to share his views on love, she confesses the need to purge herself of her feelings for him and mortify her female flesh. Hermocrates, however, proves just as susceptible to her charms as Leontine. All three dupes keep their secret dealings with Phocion hidden from the others.
The princess’s true feelings for Agis are the hardest thing to camouflage, causing her to adopt the Aspasie persona with him too, and quickly overcoming his schooled aversion to love. But revelation of her true identity to Agis requires patience and nurturing, given that he has been taught to despise the princess as his mortal enemy. Phocion/Aspasie deftly juggles elopement plans with Agis and impending marriage with both Leontine and Hermocrates until their joy and excitement make her continuing masquerade impossible.
Largely faithful to Marivaux’s original text, the film’s principal difference is in the scripters’ decision to soften the finale, allowing even the scenario’s losers to be enriched and uplifted by the experience as they emerge from under the weight of their own crushing dogma.
In her best role in years, Sorvino plays her multisided character with spirit, vigorousness and a wickedly charming glint in her eye, conveying her own giddy pleasure in the power of love but never losing sight of the determination and resolve necessary to her task and never seeming oblivious to the regrettable cruelty of some of her actions. Affecting a neutral Anglo accent and slipping down a half-octave in male guise, the actress is physically convincing as a man only in the most theatrical manner of the ruse. But this works perfectly well within the context of Peploe’s approach.
Kingsley and Shaw are consummate players in every sense, and their scenes together represent some of the film’s chief pleasures. Shaw’s complete transformation from parched efficiency to fluttery girlishness within a single scene is hilarious. Kingsley is equally enjoyable, flirting outrageously with farcical excess as Hermocrates’ reason and sobriety give way to foppish vanity and lovestruck bliss. While he’s not in the same league as his fellow leads, Rodan’s boyish beauty and the candor he brings to Agis make him a worthy trophy for the princess.
Shot in and around a handsome 18th-century villa and sprawling estate in Lucca, Tuscany (actual geography of the story is never specified), on what appears to have been a modest budget, film is visually efficient without all the opulence and period detail of, say, a Merchant-Ivory costumer.
Fabio Cianchetti’s camerawork is a little lifeless, while Jacopo Quadri’s editing at first seems mannered, with nervous jump-cutting used in all the more urgent confrontations. But this device becomes less distracting and more appropriate as the action progresses. Most notable other contempo touch is the occasional sound of modern rock guitar work (by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour) within a mainly classical score.