The stodgy works of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, makers of Howards End and Jefferson in Paris, have encouraged the sad notion that costume dramas must be leaden and respectable. Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility helped rehabilitate the stifled form, and now Patrice Leconte's Ridicule ventilates it with yet more fresh air.
Consider the precredit sequence: A beautifully turned-out nobleman arrives at a mansion and is ushered into a dark sitting room to meet the mansion's owner, a withered old man incapacitated by a stroke. When the visitor identifies himself, the old man is agitated but can't speak. It seems that years earlier the old man had publicly dubbed the nobleman "The Count of Stumblebums," a name amusing enough that it stuck; in the culture of the time, this trivial insult was sufficient to ruin the man's life. Now that the perpetrator is too debilitated to fight back, his victim gets his revenge: The younger man unzips his fly and gleefully, copiously, urinates all over his host.
It's a witty opening to a movie that is itself all about wit -- albeit a notion of wit far removed from our current use of the term. If director Leconte (Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser's Husband) and first-time screenwriter Remi Waterhouse are to be believed, wit in the court of Louis XVI denoted cruel, destructive humor; in that court one's wit determined one's fortune.
We learn more about this culture through the eyes of the film's protagonist Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), an earnest nobleman from the provinces who heads to Versailles in hopes of gaining the king's favor. Gregoire is an engineer, and he has devised a plan to drain the swamps in his region to benefit the peasants, who are ridden with all sorts of communicable diseases. It's an expensive undertaking -- one that can be accomplished only with a subsidy from the crown.
But Gregoire, though well educated, is a hick. Before he even makes it to court, he is set upon by a highwayman. Luckily he is rescued by the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), who undertakes to instruct him in "courtesy" -- that is to say, the ways of the court. Social gatherings are essentially (and sometimes explicitly) verbal putdown contests; remarks of a particularly "witty" nature will eventually make their way to the ears of the king, who may reward the speaker with an audience. "At Versailles," the marquis explains, "wit is everything."
He gives his protege some other advice: "Never laugh at your own jokes," he cautions -- a fine idea, even today. And "Don't make puns! Puns are the death of wit." (Harrumph!) After some tentative missteps, Gregoire proves himself a witty fellow indeed. He also catches the eye of professional seductress Countess de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), who for obvious reasons has some influence over the king.
While he dallies with the countess, he is also falling in love with the marquis's beautiful daughter Mathilde (Judith Godreche). The two are made for each other: Mathilde is the only other earnest human being within shooting distance of Versailles. Also an engineer, she is hard at work testing a diving helmet.
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The world of Ridicule is the ultimate in decadence. As in Dangerous Liaisons, which was published in 1782 (a year before Ridicule takes place), the court is a place where emotion, morals, and meaning are sneered at and considered inferior to cleverness. It's bathed in effete, glittering evil -- amusing to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.
Leconte, whose Tango (unreleased in the United States, probably because of its apparent misogyny) is one of the wittiest films I've seen in years, obviously finds Louis's court both seductive and repellent. Like a silent Cecil B. DeMille film, Ridicule revels in showing us sin so -- wink, nudge -- we'll know what not to do.
As it was in Monsieur Hire, Leconte's style here is rigorously controlled. There is an occasional moment of flash (a group of maids powdering the countess's naked body is a lovely and clever shot) and an occasional moment of flesh (Gregoire's first approach to Mathilde is incredibly sexy, thanks to its restraint). While Ridicule shares elements with Dangerous Liaisons, the film it most closely parallels is last year's Restoration. Both are about young men of serious intent being seduced, literally and figuratively, by the decadent pleasures of life at court. But Restoration was marred by its overreaching, if interesting, ambition: Director Michael Hoffman tried to cover so much ground that the film lost its narrative thrust. Leconte more wisely keeps things well focused.
Written by Remi Waterhouse; directed by Patrice Leconte; with Charles Berling, Jean Rochefort, Judith Godreche, Fanny Ardant, Bernard Giraudeau, and Bernard Dheran.