The last line of the New York Times’s review of Eric Rohmer’s L’anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke) claims that “If cinema had been around to capture the chaos of France in the 1790’s, one imagines the result would look like something like this.” Does one really? It seems to me that the point of the film is precisely to remind us that, whatever the Revolutionary Terror looked like, it could not have looked like this. That is the point of the stagey, oil-painted backdrops and the look of the acting and direction — so like that of the much more formal styles of the French theatre of the period in which the film is set. In other words, Rohmer is trying to use some other means than the naturalistic to transport us back in time to the late 18th century. I think it works too, in spite of the fact that this kind of stylization goes so completely against the realistic grain of the cinema.
Rohmer did something similar in his retelling of the Parsifal legend, Perceval le Gallois (1978). There too, the various sorts of stylizations helped to keep reminding us of the social and temporal dislocation between audience and subject, which is the first necessity for any attempt to put a contemporary mind in touch with that of another period. The painted backdrops in The Lady and the Duke are the functional equivalent of the child’s play-house look of Perceval, but they are the easy part. It must have been a much more difficult task for Rohmer to get out of his actors, especially the main ones, Lucy Russell as Grace Elliott, the English memoirist and Jean-Claude Dreyfus as Philippe, duc d’Orleans, her friend and former lover, an acting style that is so unlike that which every other director asks for.
Not only does the stylized and artificial mise en scène and, to a lesser extent, the dialogue have a distancing and flattening effect, but so does the chronicle format. Because it is not treated as a story based on the memoir of Grace Elliott but something as close as he can make it to the memoir itself, putting it up on the screen in a sort of diary form, Rohmer deprives us of a cinema-shaped narrative — that is, one with a story arc, and a beginning that somehow implies its ending, or an ending that comprises its beginning. Here, as in a chronicle or diary, one thing simply happens after another, and the only structure is implied by the events themselves.
In the case of the French Revolution, however, this is quite a structure. It is one of those historical events — there can hardly be many — that almost seems to amount to a naturally-occurring drama. But here again, Rohmer prefers to look at the epic implied by the largeness of the event not directly but obliquely. The duc d’Orleans, though a cousin of King Louis’s and a leader of the revolution, was a relatively minor player in the drama, and even the part that he does play takes place off-screen and as reported to Grace Elliott, with whom he has remained close friends after their affair.
There is, it is true, a rather movie-ish crisis in their relationship when Grace extracts from the Duke a promise not to vote in the assembly for the execution of his cousin, Louis XVI, and then the Duke goes back on his promise in a vain attempt to maintain what Bill Clinton once called his “political viability within the system.” But even here, what might otherwise have been played as the high drama of such a betrayal, is allowed to dissipate in the general horror as the Revolution moves on from slaughtering its enemies to devouring its friends, and Grace can only turn forgiving as her enemies turn ruthless.
Rohmer’s decision to stick stubbornly to the point of view of the diarist, never letting us see anything that she would not have known and reported on, helps to reinforce what I take to be his purpose, which is to give us a sense of what it would have been like, not to be there (that is asking too much of a movie) but to have been, as she was, a minor figure at the margins of history and in continual danger of being crushed by it. It is also interesting that he has chosen the point of view of a royalist. You might think that, having already distanced us from his characters in every stylistic way possible, he would have chosen someone whose sympathies were a bit closer to the modern ones, lest he risk failing completely to create any sense of self-identification with the main character by the audience.
And, indeed, he does seem to have lost at least the denser and less imaginative part of his potential audience, at least if one or two amazingly stupid reviews are anything to go by. Who cares what happens to these olde timey aristocrats? — so said, in effect, one that I read, and that appeals to democratic snobbery as an excuse for denying to them a fundamental human compassion. But what, I say, is the point of being Eric Rohmer if you are going to have to worry about keeping the stupid people watching? Once again, on suppose that he must have had a point in doing what he does.
Part of it, at least, must have to do with preventing his film from becoming a political one. Pretty much all varieties of republicanism are still live issues, and a republican heroine would almost have had to be up-to-date by proclaiming herself as an adherent of one variety or another. This, in turn, would have forced Rohmer himself to have made some kind of political statement. But as a royalist, Grace effectively takes herself out of politics, so far as we of the 21st century are concerned. It is simply not, for us, a believable, a practical, political stance.
The result is that we are freed from having to make the effort to understand the material in political terms.
Instead, it is presented to us entirely in human terms: Grace Elliott loves France and the Duc d’Orleans, and sees both loves taken from her by the revolutionaries. Once again, the point is to show how an ordinary, essentially apolitical (so far as we are concerned) person caught up in events of immense political and historical significance teaches herself to behave. For the moral decisions that Grace must make — to stay in Paris, to hide the Marquis de Champcenetz (Léonard Cobiant), to extract from Orleans a promise not to vote to condemn the king and then to forgive him after he reneges on his promise — can be made on no other grounds than human decency and compassion.
What Rohmer has done therefore is to take away from us the political rationale for regicide and the guillotine and left us, like Grace, to confront the horrors of the revolution with nothing but an English sense of decency — which is pretty much the sense of decency that we of Western Europe and America have been left with after the horrors of the 20th century: prefigured for us here by those of the French Revolution. In the case of poor Champcenetz, she doesn’t even like him, and Orleans, her friend and protector, hates him. But she cannot refuse to help him, even though it means certain death for her if she is caught doing so. “I undertook to rescue you, and I shall do so or perish with you,” she tells Champcenetz.
The words and the act are all the more heroic — somehow now more than ever — for having been done without any political motivation whatsoever. And this also sets the stage for what is, in spite of the deliberately plodding style, a kind of climax. Grace is arrested as a private letter addressed through her to Charles James Fox, the foremost British supporter of the Revolution, from a fellow enthusiast is read out to the Comité de Surveillance. This English tribute to the higher ideals of the revolution and the Rights of Man, naturally produces a warm glow of self-satisfaction from bloodthirsty committee members, who are forced to acquit her on a charge of conspiring against the Revolution. But it also serves as a reminder of what got the Revolution started — just as there follows a reminder of how it all went wrong as one of the committee tries to have her arrested anyway for her friendship with the Duke.