For most of his long career, Éric Rohmer created a series of ‘moral investigations’ that were resolutely spare and enigmatic in their construction, dealing with matters of the heart, personal intrigues and disappointments, and the vicissitudes of human existence. He began his career shooting on 16mm film, and then as his commercial clout increased, switched to 35mm (with exceptions such as his gorgeous and mostly improvised 1986 feature The Green Ray, shot on 16mm film to keep costs down), but no matter what format Rohmer used, his films remain rooted in the real world, devoid of both spectacle and special effects.

The Lady and The Duke, however, represents a dual departure in both style and structure from Rohmer’s previous work. For the first time, “aside from La Cambrure, a 17-minute film presented at Cannes in 1999”,1 Rohmer used digital cameras rather traditional 35mm film to capture his chosen images. In addition, Rohmer made extensive use of ‘blue screen’ technology to create non-existent sets through the use of digital backdrops that are, by design, completely stylised and artificial. As Frédéric Bonnaud noted shortly after the film’s release in 2001, “the results are spectacular, recalling early cinema projection techniques and 19th-century magic lantern presentations, as well as the panoramic views of Venetian painting, the canvases of painters like Hubert Robert, and children’s slide shows and shadow play, with vague silhouettes seemingly floating against exterior backdrops.”2

Visually, then, the film is most reminiscent of Karel Zeman’s 1958 film Invention of Destruction (Vynález zkázy), which used line engravings as backdrops for the film’s action, although the compositing of images in the pre-digital era was done entirely through filmic processes, rather than electronic ones. But the effect is the same; a realistically unreal vision of the past, with the actors visually and metaphorically separated from their surroundings, as if to acknowledge that any historical film (with apologies to Rossellini’s gorgeous late historical films, especially his masterful 1972 film Blaise Pascal) must necessarily be inauthentic. It’s clear that even at the rather advanced age of 81, Rohmer was still working to reinvent the cinema.

Those on the Left will find the film problematic, for Rohmer’s view of the French Revolution is decidedly on the side of the Royalists. The film centers on the real-life figure of Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), a Scottish spy who lived through ‘The Terror,’ and left behind a first-hand account of what she witnessed, published after her death in 1823 as Journal of My Life During the French Revolution (Ma Vie Sous La Révolution, 1859). The Duke in question is her former lover, Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), another authentic historical figure who, despite ‘supporting’ the French Revolution – clearly, he had little choice in the matter – and even changing his name to Philippe Égalité in an attempt to win favor with the revolutionary government, was ultimately sent to the guillotine in 1793. Their slowly evolving relationship is the center of the film; all other events seem to drift into the background.

Rohmer’s film is clearly in sympathy with the Duke’s downfall from his former position as a member of the French nobility, and applauds Grace Elliott’s ultimately futile attempts to save his life, once the revolution takes hold on France. As Bonnaud notes, The Lady and the Duke is a “political film. A right-leaning director, who has never made a secret of his conservative, even reactionary, views, Rohmer plainly regards the French Revolution as the beginning of the end, a decisive step towards a now-inescapable barbarism.”3 We see most of the film’s events from Grace’s point of view, and though there are a few touches of humanity to be seen in the midst of the revolutionary fervor that pervades the film, the public is seen as an unreasoning mob, ready to be led by Robespierre (François-Marie Banier) and his henchman wherever their whims might take them.

Some critics have complained that as a result of the intentionally artificial, though period-faithful digital sets used in the film, the human drama of the piece is fatally compromised. I would argue against such an interpretation, saying rather that Rohmer’s strategy places the plight of the film’s two central characters in even sharper relief, enabling us to focus on the human aspect of the narrative that much more intently.

For above all, The Lady and the Duke is a tragedy, told in a series of tableaux that become increasingly sinister as the revolution gathers in power. Often, in Rohmer’s films, the central characters don’t know precisely what they want, or imagine that they want something other than what would really satisfy them, but this isn’t the case here. Grace sees power slipping away from the aristocracy, but also sees that what replaces it is even worse; the triumph of violence and anarchy. Grace wants to protect the Duke, but it’s too late; in each successive scene, the outcome of their doomed relationship becomes more and more evident.

The world may be collapsing about them, but Grace and the Duke have time for extended reflection upon their changing states, and Rohmer, as usual, is not interested in moving the narrative along simply for the sake of audience convenience. Dialogue is of the greatest importance here, as in all of Rohmer’s films. As in real life, injustices and indignities gradually accrue until a crisis is reached, and in the end, Rohmer shows us that there is no reasoning with a regime dedicated to wholesale destruction. The film is leisurely in its construction, but that doesn’t prevent Rohmer from ratcheting up the suspense as matters become progressively more untenable.

Lavishly produced at a cost of some $6 million US, the film recouped only $1.9 million US in its initial theatrical release, though The Lady and the Duke gained some additional revenue from a DVD release, something that wouldn’t be possible today in the era of streaming-only VOD. In many ways, the film belongs to another era, despite the use of digital imaging and CGI effects. This thoughtful, transcendent film belongs the past as much as the present, and serves both as a meditation on the past, and a warning for the future – something Rohmer tried to do with all his films; to instruct, and enlighten his audience.

 

L’Anglaise et le Duc (The Lady and The Duke) (2001 France 129 min)

Prod Co: Pathé Image Production, Compagnie Éric Rohmer, KC Medien, France 3 Cinéma, Canal+ Prod: Françoise Etchegaray Dir: Éric Rohmer Scr: Éric Rohmer, based on Journal of My Life During the French Revolution (Ma Vie Sous La Révolution, 1859) by Grace Elliott Phot: Diane Baratier Ed: Mary Stephen Prod Des: Antoine Fontaine Visual Effects: Pierre Buffin, Olivier Dumont

 

Endnotes

  1. Frédéric Bonnaud, “Frédéric Bonnaud on Eric Rohmer’s First Digital Feature,” Film Comment (September/October 2001) http://www.filmcomment.com/article/frederic-bonnaud-on-eric-rohmers-first-digital-feature/.
  2. Bonnaud.
  3. Bonnaud.

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press. Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third revised edition is forthcoming in 2017. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema: A Brief History (2015) was featured on Turner Classic Movies as part of their series “Artists in Black and White.” Just published is Dixon’s newest book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (co-authored with Richard Graham (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).