Saturday, February 1, 2014

Lee Liberman revisits Patrice Leconte's RIDICULE: income inequality circa 1780's France

Income inequality comes in cycles and ours is now reported to be more distorted in favor of the rich than at any other time since the 1930's. The fight to ease poverty is heating up -- and the palaver against.

A particularly bloody battle between haves and have-nots brought down the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while it cavorted in the face of its miserable citizens -- "the peasants are boring." France was mired in debt, starvation, and bread riots.

Already public opinion had soured on the monarchy after a successful American Revolution and circulation of Age of Reason writings on liberty, equality, and right to happiness. Victor Hugo's great long novel of 1862, "Les Miserables", told of hell on earth, in which all but the few have been degraded by poverty. But Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liasions (1988) and Patrice Leconte's RIDICULE (1996) take a different tack, focusing on the stultifying cruelty at and close to Versailles, skewering libertine courtier life with sharp satire and terrific story-telling. (For future note, Christopher Hampton who adapted the "Dangerous Liaisons" film from 18th-century novel,"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" by Choderios de Laclos, is now creating a series for the BBC based on similar material.)

Director Leconte (shown at left), known for Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser's Husband, and The Widow of St Pierre (among many others) has a new film due in April, his first in English, A Promise, described by one reviewer as so-so viewing for the Masterpiece crowd, with Alan Rickman, Rebecca Hall, and Richard Madden. But Leconte's edgiest work is Ridicule. It combines elements of Les Miserables and Dangerous Liaisons into a taut fable about the .01% of the top 1%'s self-referential obsessions at court in the years leading up to revolution in 1789. Leconte's scriptwriting team, headed by Rémi Waterhouse, seeds plots, sub-plots, and passing chatter with rapier wit.

Ridicule satirizes the court but unlike Dangerous Liaisons, contrasts it to the poverty and misery across France. The story unfolds from the point of view of poor rural baron and engineer, Gregoire Poncedeludon (Charles Berlingshown above, right), whose peasants are dying from exposure to his mosquito-filled swamps located in an area of France called the Dombes. (The water pools had been created centuries earlier for fishing but had become disease breeding grounds.) The earnest baron is headed to Paris to persuade King Louis to help reconvert the swamps to tillable farm land.

Previewing what's ahead at court, the film starts with a maxim by the Duke of Guines: "In this country, vices are without consequences but ridicule can kill." The scene opens with the Marquis de Milletail (one of several dubious characters with Dickens-like satirical last names) paying a sick call on old Marquis de Blayac, laid up from a stroke, dying. Milletail makes no smalltalk before getting to the point of chiding Blayac for humiliating him years ago by nicknaming him 'Marquis de Stumblebum' after he had fallen at a ball. Milletail unleashes more spite -- he unzips full frontal and directs a long piss at the old man, later advising a servant in sympathetic tones that the ailing Marquis in his joy had forgotten himself.

Meanwhile young Ponceludon approaches Paris on horseback, his maps and engineering drawings in tow, when he is mugged and robbed by a peasant-turned-bandit. Gregoire is treated and taken in by a local doctor of modest means, the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort, shown two photos up), Bellegarde has a beautiful daughter Mathilde, (Judith Godrèche, above), a Rousseau-esque back-to-nature girl and budding scientist who is developing diving equipment for underwater study. She and Gregoire are a perfect match, but she engages herself to a very rich, old courtier who agrees, in exchange for two visits a month to his future wife's bed, to support her scientific research.

Meanwhile, Bellegarde offers to teach Gregoire how to get on at court. He is not to make a forthright case for his project but to train his wit on the King's inner circle; he must avoid sincerity and seriousness at all costs. Gregoire is clever at verbal repartee, quickly scoring points with recent widow Madam de Blayac (Fanny Ardant, above). She intends to replace her lover and priest, L'Abbe de Vilecourt, with the young baron and to assist her protege's access to King Louis. In addition to paying court to Mme Blayac, Gregoire takes on the Byzantine palace bureaucracy, being thwarted at every turn until Blayac begins pulling strings. Many comic (and not so) plot turns occur, in which Gregoire's love pangs, conscience, and fortunes rise and plummet until he finally wises up to the hopeless, endless cruelty of the court. His efforts there end in a fall at a ball. It bookends the Milletail vignette that prefaced the story, but Gregoire, who has more experience of life than the fools at court, takes nothing lying down.

Jump to 1790's England where the aristocracy including Mathilde's father, Dr. Bellegarde, have fled the Revolution. Bellegarde intends to support himself teaching French and medical sciences and will enjoy British humor more than cruel French wit. In 1795, says the afterward printed on screen: "Citizens Gregoire and Mathilde Ponceludon proceeded with the draining of the Dombes. Their lives were rid of pestilence, royal caprice, and the savage sting of aristocratic ridicule."

If the reader feels robbed by knowing the end of the story -- don't -- all the fun is getting there. If there's a rich one-percenter who has wandered into this space, take a look in the mirror and make sure you don't see a pre-revolution courtier there.

Ridicule is streamable now via Netflix, as well as available on DVD.

This post was written by Lee Liberman, 
who will be joining us now and again 
--maybe weekly--to cover the occasional film.
Her ability to weave both history and criticism 
into her writing is much appreciated by TrustMovies. 

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