So lovely but so reactionary: What could be said of the boldly resourceful heroine of Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke could describe the movie itself. Taking a respite from romantic talkathons, the octogenarian nouvelle vague director has adapted expatriate courtesan (and royalist sympathizer) Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s hitherto obscure Journal of My Life During the French Revolution using digital video technology to fabricate the Paris of 200 years ago.
The movie’s look is authentic, but—as suits an epoch that predates photography—in no way naturalistic. Commissioning a series of paintings based on period engravings, Rohmer has contrived a glorious Méliès effect: Once they leave their drawing rooms, his actors are keyed into these virtual locations as though they were moving through 18th-century panoramas and tableaux. This irresistible magic-lantern show, screened at the last New York Film Festival, is also coolly formalist. Rohmer rarely moves his camera, taking his cues from D.W. Griffith’s treatment of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm; his mode, however, is not melodrama. Distanced by narrative voice-over and intertitles, history is glimpsed always from Grace’s perspective, as a series of discrete moments: the revolutionary celebrations of 1790, the Second Revolution and September Massacres of 1792, the regicide and Terror of 1793.
As overtly constructed as it is, this historical spectacle invites contemplation. In a key scene, Grace (Lucy Russell) stands on a balcony in a Paris suburb and gazes back at the smoky city, where—as described to her by a servant looking through a spyglass—Louis XVI is being put to death. At other times, the action is far closer. But, despite the Tuileries aflame and corpses draped upon the phantom Pont Neuf, the effect is decorous—even when Grace spots the head of her friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, brandished on a pike. A woman whose noblesse oblige enables her to rise to the most extreme situations, Grace hobbles on foot alone to her château outside the city walls—only to return to Paris on a mission that involves smuggling a wounded aristo past the sansculotte mobs to the safety of her boudoir.
First cousin to The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Lady and the Duke has considerable derring-do for a Rohmer film, but is not without its action-dialogue. Grace is introduced arguing politics with her former lover, the Duke of Orléans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), a constitutional monarchist who has turned against his class and his cousin Louis. Grace is charmingly opinionated and, like a proper Rohmer heroine, thrives on conversation. Indeed, she almost never stops talking—imprudently mouthing off against the revolution and expressing an irrational devotion to the Sun King and his Marie Antoinette. (That a foreigner should be so loyal reproaches the fickle French—a joke that Rohmer evidently enjoys.)
Political disagreements continue throughout the movie—the opportunistic Orléans defends the revolution until it devours him. Thanks in part to the actors, their discourse has an Olympian quality. Lucy Russell’s magnificent bearing, corseted figure, and corona of curls would befit a Greek goddess—she’s the avatar of post-revolutionary neoclassicism. Dreyfus’s Orléans, by contrast, is ostentatiously theatrical. An oversized head pressing down on his hunched shoulders, he suggests a would-be Prometheus whose dark grimaces, grand gestures, and windy courtesies are in comic counterpoint to Russell’s stubborn composure. The Duke is only seen in the context of Grace. She herself has no context other than being a rich lady (with a Jacobin cook) whose past romantic liaisons include not only Orléans but the Prince of Wales. There is little sense, for example, of the total war being waged against the French Republic by the rest of Europe.
As with his previous costume dramas, The Marquise of O (1975) and Perceval (1978), each stylized in its own way, Rohmer is self-consciously presenting a text. The period is filtered through artifice; similarly, Rohmer’s scrupulous structure and attention to narrativity gives a material weight to Grace’s distinctive voice as a writer. The Lady and the Duke is not the story of the French Revolution, but it is very much a story. Inevitably, Grace is arrested by the Committee of Public Safety’s ludicrous functionaries and marched to her trial through a Paris of taunting trolls. But, knowing her as we do, it’s scarcely surprising that she’s able to confound the Committee and even bewitch Robespierre.
If you can forget the world-historic significance of the mass revolution that overthrew Europe’s oldest absolute monarchy—or rather, subsume it in the mysteries of personality—The Lady and the Duke is the stuff of human interest.
The ideals of liberté, egalité, and fraternité are reprovingly embodied in Raoul Peck’s Beta SP documentary-essay Profit and Nothing But!, which had its local premiere at the last Margaret Mead Film Festival and opens Friday on a bill with Diamonds and Rust (a prizewinning Israeli feature doc about African diamond mining).
“Capital has won. . . . Capital has swept the board,” a somber narrator informs us, speaking on behalf of Peck’s native Haiti, a country that “theoretically doesn’t exist” and whose GNP for the next 30 years might barely equal Bill Gates’s current worth. “Triumphant capitalism” means nothing in Haiti, often crosscut with shots of an imperial New York as devoid of human presence as the Caribbean nation teems with it. Profit and Nothing But! makes a gloomy postscript to Peck’s rousing biopic Lumumba. In a tradition begun by D.W. Griffith in A Corner in Wheat, Peck creates an elegant 52-minute montage-cum-lecture applying Marxist economic theory to the forces of globalization. His points are interspersed with mordant clips of Ronald Reagan and other American tele-celebrities. Such juxtapositions make for a sharper argument than the depressed narrator’s pronouncements, which unfortunately amount to a droning expression of moral superiority.
The great Soviet filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956), subject of a current retrospective at the Walter Reade, was both a sophisticated revolutionary artist and a Ukrainian tribal bard; his name epitomizes a cine-lyricism so passionate as to verge on pantheism.
Dovzhenko, the son of illiterate peasants, became a village schoolteacher, studied economics during the Russian Revolution, and entered the Soviet diplomatic service before reinventing himself as a graphic artist. Breaking into movies in 1926, he made his debut with a short slapstick satire, Love Berry. Compared to his peers Eisenstein and Vertov, Dovzhenko proved to be a man of many genres. His first feature, Diplomatic Pouch (1927), was a spy thriller, as was his 1935 Aerograd; his breakthrough came with the political folk tale, Zvenigora (1927), and was consolidated with the grotesque and frenzied war film Arsenal (1929). Some 15 years later, Dovzhenko was documenting the German invasion of the Ukraine.
After the critical attacks on his enraptured, startlingly aestheticized tractor-paean Earth (1930) and beginning with his first sound film, Ivan (1932), Dovzhenko was largely constrained to Stalinist bio-pics, including Shchors (1939) and Michurin (1948). But even his most doctrinaire movies are marked by personal eccentricities, including his last, the unfinished and blatantly propagandist Farewell, America (1950). Showing here for the first time, it’s stocked with over-the-top imperialist warmongers, including a capitalist toilet manufacturer who has a stroke when he hears the name “Stalin.”
Dovzhenko suffered more frustration than persecution during the Stalin period, but his current reputation rests mainly on his last three silent features. Zvenigora is a masterpiece of magic realism made well before the term was invented. Arsenal‘s powerful use of repetition, cartoonish images, mad angles, fondness for close-ups, and frenzied parallel action suggests a talented Eisenstein follower’s attempt to blast his mentor off the screen.
The astonishingly beautiful Earth is unlike anything else in movies. Drafted to make a film on rural collectivization, Dovzhenko produced a myth presenting the creation of the kolkhoz as a natural phenomenon, part of a cosmic cycle of birth and death. Murdered by a crazed kulak (or wealthy peasant), Earth‘s young hero is a martyr to the fertility of harvest. Released amid the campaign to liquidate the kulaks, Earth is ultimately a pagan myth made to celebrate a tragic social experiment. As exotic now as a Mayan temple or a Sienese altarpiece, it will screen four times this weekend, twice accompanied by the energetic cacophonists of the Alloy Orchestra.