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THE LADY AND THE DUKE (L’Anglaise Et Le Duc)

By Rich Cline | February 5, 2004

At age 81, Rohmer is like the grandfather of French cinema. He keeps innovating, yet his films are infuriatingly French (that is, talky and pretentious). This period drama is based on the memoir of Grace Elliott (Russell), a Scottish woman (the film’s original title ironically calls her “Englishwoman,” as the French called Elliott) who made a career as mistress to the English and French aristocracy. But in the late 18th century, the revolution in Paris makes her position is rather precarious indeed, as all her “sponsors” are under threat of execution from an increasingly angry public. Her closest ally is the Duc d’Orleans (Dreyfus), with whom she disagrees politically but keeps as a friend. The film tracks their relationship through three very turbulent years. There are flashes of brilliance as Rohmer uses period paintings for all the exteriors, placing his characters in the artwork and animating the scenes. Combined with the odd-looking digital photography elsewhere, this makes the entire film look like a cross between a moving painting and a play with painted backdrops. The staginess is also apparent in the episodic script, which skips from event to event without filling in the gaps and focusses on the performances, which are subtle and nuanced. The problem is that, except for one astonishing crowd scene, nothing actually happens on screen. Everyone just sits around talking endlessly (after all the subtitles, we feel like we’ve read a complete Laclos novel in the process!), often about nothing terribly relevant, sometimes about exciting goings on we never get to witness. Themes of idealism and political reality, respect and antagonism are nicely touched on. Rohmer’s playful style is often good fun. And Russell is especially compelling. But honestly, it’s fairly hard going.

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