The Triumph of Love, a comedy by the 18th century French playwright, Pierre de Marivaux, has been brought to the screen by Clare Peploe, wife of Bernardo Bertolucci, who has writing and producing credits on it. Despite the presence of the radiant Mira Sorvino and the excellent Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw, I fear it is not quite successful. The problem is that the film can do neither with nor without the essential cruelty of the French original, and so instead it tries (unsuccessfully) to soften or gloss over this aspect of Marivaux’s play. The alternative would be to make those classic types from French comedy, the pedant and the mannish spinster, as ridiculous as they would have been to contemporaries, and there is never any question of doing that.
The story concerns a Prince, Agis (Jay Rodan), whose father has been overthrown and killed while he is exiled to a country house in the care of a philosopher-tutor called Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw). When the usurper dies and leaves the kingdom to his daughter, the Princess (Mira Sorvino), she is remorseful about her father’s conduct and determined to make amends to the Prince. She has also, on a country excursion, spotted the Prince bathing (a nice reversal of the conventions of the classical and pastoral myths that are never far in the background) and decided to marry him. But, of course, she must be the wooer, which sets the tone for further sexual reversal as she is forced to come to the austerely sexless house of Hermocrates in disguise as a man.
But soon, through her aggressive flirtation with the one and courtship of the other, she has both Hermocrates and his sister in love with her, while the Prince Agis thinks that she is a male friend to join in his sports — including shooting arrows at an effigy of the princess. For her, of course, it is a marvelously “transgressive” moment (as they say these days), but the comedy of it for us depends on our having an 18th century sense of Hermocrates and Leontine as a fussy, vain, foolish and above all aged pair, for whom being loved by either of the beautiful young people played by the Princess would have been, to the audience though not to them, ridiculous. Yet Ms Peploe hasn’t the nerve to make them either very old or very ridiculous. How can we possibly understand the exquisite comedy of Hermocrates’s pause in the middle of his love-talking to say: “My god, I’m behaving like an idiot”? So far as we can see, he’s not behaving like an idiot at all.
Not only does this rather spoil the comedy of the thing, it also runs the risk of making the Princess more calculating, more heartless than we want her to be. The movie attempts to compensate by showing us the poor Princess with a stricken look on her face when she realizes she has made these poor people fall in love with her, as if she had done so by inadvertence and not as part of a deliberate strategy to attain her object of Agis. There are also a couple of comic rustics who look badly out of place — another embarrassment from a former age when comedy consisted of laughing at other people for being different. And the ending piles absurdity on top of absurdity — Leontine, good bluestocking that she is, is supposed to find consolation in her discovery of electricity — without ever managing to be funny.
In short, the movie is a mess, an incoherent mixture of styles and points of view, and too rarely funny. It doesn’t help that we are allowed to glimpse a present-day audience on the lawn of the period Tuscan mansion, Hermocrates’s house, where the film is set. It is a reminder that everything here, like the statuary, the brocade, the costumes, the gardens, is period, is staged. At the curtain call the cast appears in present-day dress just to underline the point. Don’t be frightened, children! The nice teacher and the inventor lady weren’t really humiliated by the princess. It’s OK to like her still. And, in fact, one does. For those, like me, who have a hopeless crush on the beautiful Miss Sorvino, the film is almost worth seeing just for her performance. She has never been lovelier. Certainly, we may all feel as wise as Hermocrates, who never for a moment believes in her masculine disguise.