Like a crafty Casanova who masks his true intentions while assiduously charming his latest prey, “Mademoiselle de Joncquieres” takes a stealthy and slow-burn approach before fully revealing its true colors as a shrewdly choreographed roundelay of scheming, seduction and revenge in the spirit of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Freely adapted from the same section of Denis Diderot’s “Jacques le Fataliste” that inspired Robert Bresson’s “Les dames du bois de Boulogne” — but, unlike Bresson’s modernized 1945 version (co-scripted with Jean Cocteau), set in the same 18th-century period as Diderot’s original — writer-director Emmanuel Mouret’s exquisitely mounted and beautifully photographed film begins as a leisurely paced dramedy of manners, brimming with archly clever bons mots and politely tamped passions. But then things take a darker turn, and the movie becomes all the more enjoyable as elegantly nasty fun with serious mortal stakes.
During the regency of Louis XV, Madame de La Pommeraye (Cécile de France), a wealthy and attractive widow, has more or less retired from the world to luxuriate in the comforts of her lavish estate. She considers herself in full control of the situation while she entertains as a long-term houseguest the Marquis de Arcis (Edouard Baer), a notorious libertine whose eloquent conversation she treasures, and whose indefatigable attempts at wooing she lightly dismisses. Still, he persists. Over a period of several months her skepticism diminishes as he repeatedly insists that although he makes no apologies for entrapping earlier conquests with words of love — “I merely express the sincere feelings they arouse in me!” — this time, he is truly ready for monogamy. Madame takes him at his word, and gives in to her not-so-hidden desire. This, of course, is a big mistake.
For a lengthy stretch, Madame feels safe to assume the Marquis is a constant lover, and never doubts that he remains faithful during frequent business trips. When an old friend reports gossip suggesting otherwise, she brusquely dismisses the doubters as jealous fabricators: “Love is an insult for those who have none.” There comes a point, however, when Madame feels compelled to test her lover. So she tells the Marquis that she feels her passion has burnt out, and fears they have fallen out of love. Naturally, she hopes the Marquis will disagree. Instead, he admits that he shares her appraisal of their relationship — but still wants them to remain good friends while he resumes his rakish ways. She claims to accept the new rules of the game, and he believes her.
This, too, is a big mistake.
Mouret nimbly shifts sympathies and upends expectations while fashioning a consistently intriguing narrative that teases the audience with the possibilities of revenge or redemption, tragedy or comedy, at almost every turn. It is initially easy to empathize with Madame as a scorned woman who’s entitled to payback. (“If more women acted like me,” she says by way of justifying her duplicity, “the honor of being a woman would be greater.”) But Mouret makes it increasingly more difficult to maintain that rooting interest the further she goes to extremes.
Specifically: Madame employs as pawns in her reprisal campaign Madame de Joncquieres (a well-cast Natalia Dontcheva), a once-respectable woman who was seduced, impregnated and abandoned by another amoral womanizer, and her fetching young daughter, the titular Mademoiselle de Joncquieres (Alice Isaaz), who, like her fallen-from-grace mom, works as a prostitute far beyond the insular world of respectable society.
Promising the pair enough money to reinvent themselves elsewhere, Madame instructs Mademoiselle to pose as a devoutly religious virgin, the sort of innocent that a rogue like the Marquis simply cannot resist. And, indeed, the Marquis is instantly smitten, leading to an amusing series of scenes during which he desperately attempts — with deceptively lukewarm encouragement from his good friend, Madame de La Pommeraye — to capture the fancy of the seemingly virtuous young woman by using professions of love and promises of a sizable dowry .
Mouret maintains a light touch as he effectively underscores the pungent ironies of a story set in a world where women are permanently damned for behavior that never seriously besmirches the reputations of men, and prostitutes can demonstrate far more integrity than gentlemen — and gentlewomen — as they run the risk of becoming collateral damage. It’s a world where even the most wary women can be victimized. But it’s also a world where victims can all too easily become victimizers. In other words, it’s a world not unlike that of the 21st century.
“Mademoiselle de Joncquieres” has quite a few surprises up its sleeve as it builds to a richly satisfying conclusion capped off with a dead solid perfect curtain line. So many surprises, in fact, that it is challenging to find ways of describing why certain performances are so excellent without inadvertently revealing how flawlessly the actors maneuver their way through the twists and turns as their characters evolve (or devolve). Suffice it to say that, in the central roles of Madame de La Pommeraye and the Marquis de Arcis, de France and Baer are perfectly matched, both as partners and combatants, while Isaaz is achingly credible in her emotional honesty, even when Mademoiselle de Joncquieres is playing her part in a hoax.
Mention also must be made of Laure Calamy’s understated portrayal of Madame de la Pommeraye’s unnamed confidant, who wishes the best for her friend and is discreetly appalled by her lapses in judgment. You can’t help thinking that, years after the events of the film, she will transform what she has witnessed into a novel. She might try to be kind in her writing. But, then again, maybe not.