Digital lensing heightens a sense of contemporaneity in “The Baroness and the Pig,” which uses the format’s capabilities to render costume drama more cost-efficient and immediate (like Eric Rohmer’s recent “Lady and the Duke,” albeit in less striking fashion). The novelty, however, goes only so far to enliven a drama that seems cobbled together from period-pic formulae — Jamesian Yank-in-Europe saga, enfant sauvage hook, proto-feminist female protag, et al. — and provides few surprises en route. Rather too clearly drawn from first-time screen helmer Michael Mackenzie’s stage play, lacking star leads or a literary pedigree, Canadian feature seems more apt for specialized arts broadcasters than theatrical distribs.
Versatile Patricia Clarkson (“High Art,” “Welcome to Collinwood,” “Far From Heaven”) plays a wealthy Philadelphian newly married to the English Baron (Colm Feore). Having used some of her personal fortune to pay off his past debts, she relocates to 1888 Paris with him, where he hopes to sell Italian artworks to the city’s social elite.
His frequent buying trips down south leave the independent-minded little missus alone, with no established local friendships. She decides to pour her lapsed-Quaker enthusiasm for Industrial Age ingenuity into creating a cultured meeting place she hopes will take fashionable Paris by storm. The couple’s manse is outfitted with electrical lighting; the Baroness further commissions photographic exhibits, designs art nouveau decor, purchases Impressionist paintings, acquires a phonograph, and so forth to outfit the salon. But her goal of a private showcase demonstrating that “culture should be for everyone” is one that the city’s privileged classes are not likely to applaud, particularly coming from a citizen of the vulgar New World.
At first oblivious to the snubbing to come, the Baroness ignors the distress signals sent with impeccable restraint by head servant Soames (Bernard Hepton). The feather in her cap, she figures, will be the unveiling of “rehabilitated” wild child Emily (Caroline Dhavernas) — an abandoned girl found in a stable, where she was virtually raised by pigs. This grunting savage must be taught to speak and walk upright.
Emily as star attraction cements the ill-disguised hostility of the Duchess (Louise Marleau), a formidable aristo whose private licentiousness and public snobbery personify what the Baroness is up against. The Baron takes little notice of his wife’s pursuits until the Duchess — his most desperately-sought client — starts dropping nasty little hints about the social debacle she anticipates will make Mrs. Baron the laughing stock of Paris. Marital communication grows unpleasant, with the Baroness soon aware that while she may have married for love, he married for cash. Worse still is discovery that hubby is a sadistic sexual predator whose unwanted attentions leave hapless Emily traumatized.
Climax has wife engineering a severe comeuppance for the loutish Baron, who seals his fate by threatening legal seizure of the Baroness’ fortune (on falsified grounds of insanity).
Until that final stretch of rather Jacobean melodrama, “The Baroness and the Pig” is a rather talky, static affair that’s just moderately interesting. Titular figures’ respective Yankee pluck and propriety-mocking primitivism are typed from the start; ditto the Baron’s two-facedness, the Duchess’ decadent cruelty, etc., despite decent turns from all involved. Script’s ruminations about class, art, progress and women’s rights are likewise apt, but in this arthouse context rep preaching to the converted.
Shot in Hungary and Quebec City, production looks handsome enough in Eric Cayla’s crisp color high-definition video lensing. Yet it still seems overly confined, with too much screentime spent in the Duchess’ salon-in-progress parlor. Use of occasional digital 3-D effects is barely perceptible. Philip Glass’ score, mixing chamber flavors from the period with his customary churning minimalism, sums up “The Baroness and the Pig’s” limitations: Its easily digested avant-gardism has been heard so many times before that the intended originality comes off as routine.